Our third meeting of term took to the Victorian stage and the Arctic wilderness as we discussed The Frozen Deep by Wilkie Collins (with significant input from one Charles Dickens). Simon and his cardboard cast gave a wonderful introduction to the play's influences (notably the 1845 Franklin expedition and the lost Erebus and Terror, the great mystery of which continued to fascinate audiences back in Britain), its writing, dramatis personae, and initially rapturous reception in 1856 (even the set's carpenters were weeping), before a failed attempt at a revival a decade later. Using clips from The Invisible Woman (a 2013 film), he reflected on the play's connections to the unconventional personal lives of both Collins and Dickens.
We went on to discuss several key themes of the play: we explored its presentation of the relationship between destiny and precognition, as epitomised in the striking visions (or 'Claravoyance') of a key character, and links to contemporary interests in spiritualism and clairvoyance (perhaps getting a bit more unfashionable by the mid-1860s?), or the drawing of lots between officers and men; we looked at the work's theatricality (for instance in its staged vision), its drama and melodrama, and how even though it is set in a larger Arctic landscape its acts present a series of three interlinked chamber pieces with quite domestic situations, and the intervening perils only alluded to through (characteristically clunky) expository monologues (with a hint of Monty Python, we thought?).
We thought about why the Artic setting might matter, or not? Was it just a conveniently fashionable location, or - with its connotations of peril, extremity, and isolation - did both supernatural phenomena seem closer to the surface, and also deeper emotions and motivations possible to access? The character of Richard Wardour, in particular, seemed key: was he, as Dickens's biographer Claire Tomalin suggested, an opportunity for Dickens to play a man who overcame his instincts to make a final great sacrifice? Was he someone with frozen emotions until galvanised by a particular situation, or hot-headed throughout? Indeed, we explored whether characters (the Dickens influence?) or plot (the Collins influence?) could be seen as the play's primary driving force.
Overall, a lively discussion and very helpful comments from all who attended: thanks to everyone! Next time we move off from the floating ice-sheets to submerge ourselves under the sea with two pieces by Rachel Carson.
Other songs, poems, etc., referred to in our discussion (with special thanks to the Canadians):
'The Cremation of Sam McGee' by Robert W. Service
|Simon's cardboard cast, as captured by Charissa.|