Return to Glennascaul and the Vanishing Hitchhiker

Vanishing HitchhikerRight now in my free time, I am working on a play called, “This Actually Happened to my Sister’s Best Friend’s Cousin.” I generally refer to it simply as, “The folklore play.” It is structured around a couple in a parked car where he is telling her “ghost stories” he has learned in folklore class. One of those stories is the Vanishing Hitchhiker.

Vanishing Hitchhiker

There are endless versions of it but it always has the same elements: the narrator picks up a hitchhiker. At some point, the hitchhiker vanishes. In trying to find them, the narrator finds that the hitchhiker was a ghost. In the play, I use the version where the hitchhiker leaves behind a book. The narrator takes it to the house where the hitchhiker claimed to be going. Once there, he meets the hitchhiker’s father who take the book and returns it to the open slot in a book shelf.

It’s a perfect story. Folklore tends to be that way because it gets refined in the millions of tellings of it. So it isn’t surprising that many writers have grabbed onto it. I’m personally interested in it as folklore in my work. Just the same, having first heard the story when I was perhaps only eight, having heard and read it numerous times in numerous forms since, and having worked with it, I still get chills when I think about it. It’s wonderfully spooky.

Return to Glennascaul

It occurred to me the other day that years ago I had seen a short film with Orson Welles that involved the Vanishing Hitchhiker. So I went looking and I found it, Return to Glennascaul. Before I present it, I want to note that it is produced by Micheál MacLiammóir and written & directed by Hilton Edwards. Most people don’t know them, but they are legends. They founded the Gate Theatre in Dublin, and ran it their whole lives. They are, however, best know for giving Welles his first professional acting work.

Before I discuss it, it is worth watching. It’s just 22 minutes long.

What’s Bad

As cinema, it isn’t great. I assume that Hilton Edwards was a great theater director. The success of the Gate Theatre would indicate this. And the film is shot very much the way that someone who thinks in terms of the theater would shoot it. It’s almost all medium-long shots. And it bugs me! The film would be so much more engaging with some close-ups. Also, the editing wouldn’t be so stilted. The film was made in 1951, and it looks hardly more advanced than D W Griffith’s 1911 short, What Shall We Do with Our Old?

What’s Good

Just the same, it is really engaging. There are a number of reasons for this. One is that Hilton gets good performances out of his actors. Another is that the base material is irresistible. But perhaps most of all, Hilton’s screenplay is wonderful. Let me mention a few things that I think are clever.

Return to Glennascaul is a double version of the Vanishing Hitchhiker. Hilton manages this by making it a double frame story: Orson Welles tells the story of picking up a hitchhiker who tells him the vanishing hitchhiker story. The story is also highly meta. Orson Welles is supposedly Orson Welles. This allows for two rather good jokes — especially the ending. And it is the ending that really does cap the story and send the viewer off in exactly the right frame of mind.

I’m pleased to find Return to Glennascaul again. It certainly isn’t a great film. But it is a most enjoyable one — and a fine take on the Vanishing Hitchhiker.

Bad Biography: Shakespeare Edition

Gary Taylor - Bad Biography - ShakespeareWhy do people read a biography of Shakespeare? Either as a substitute for or as a supplement to a reading of his work. I may read about Byron or Orton because the life itself is both well-documented and well worth watching; but Shakespeare’s life is neither. How he behaved, what he endured, who he knew, where he went — such information does not expand or deepen my grasp of human possibility, as in their different ways the history of Thomas More or John Milton does. The extant marks of Shakespeare’s mortal passage don’t tell us anything we don’t already know about the world or the human. The works — various and ambiguous as they are — tell us something about both; the life doesn’t. Instead, far more often, we must apply our pre-fabricated theories about the world and the human in order to interpret the artifacts and ambifacts before us.

So why write about the life, instead of the works? The life is a cover for an interpretation of the works; it gives the pretence of objectivity and the pleasure of narrative to a few hundred pages of critical fiat. Russell Fraser’s Shakespeare: The Later Years contains 88 pages of notes (the text itself is only 280 pages); but the overwhelming majority are simply line-references to phrases culled from Shakespeare’s plays and poems, verbal glitter with which Fraser decorates his own rococo prose. Some pages of notes (290, 296, 300 …) consist entirely of such citations, and some pages of text consist largely of such quotations (pages 50 to 57, for instance, contain 80).

This is the second half of a two-part biography; Young Shakespeare, published in 1988, is now in paperback, and we can probably look forward to a boxed set, which ambitious grandparents will bestow upon thousands of helpless teenagers. Both volumes give the impression of serious documentation, and quite a few people have taken the biography as a serious piece of scholarship. But Fraser’s apparatus tells you almost nothing that you could not find yourself, assisted merely by a concordance, and the same is true of Fraser’s text, a recitation of numbingly conventional interpretations of the works, dangling from a thin, dirty-from-overuse string of biography. For anyone at all familiar with this subject or this period, having to read both volumes is like being forced to eat, hour after hour, mouthful after mouthful of stale cake.

The moral — or premise — of Fraser’s story is that Shakespeare is the greatest: “he had no rivals, ancient or modern.” Admirers of Homer, Sophocles, Dante, Cervantes, Goethe or anyone else, see ye the error of your ways, and repent: abandon your idols, and worship the one true god. Fraser devotes three and a half pages (pages 170-74) to the whole of Jacobean drama, brusquely dismissing Webster and Jonson and Ford, not even mentioning Middleton — except to dismiss The Revenger’s Tragedy, which he continues to misattribute to Tourneur — apparently as uninterested in the last two decades of textual scholarship as he is in the first two decades of 17th-century drama. Shakespeare stands alone. Good monotheism, but bad biography.

What, in the gospel according to St Fraser, makes Shakespeare so great? He is unfailingly impartial. He has no opinions, and expresses them beautifully. St Fraser, by contrast, is full of opinions, which unassisted readers will often have difficulty distinguishing from facts. On page three alone, he asserts, without qualification, that The Comedy of Errors was Shakespeare’s “first attempt at comedy,” that three of his first plays were printed by “pirate publishers,” that by 1594 Shakespeare was already known for “kingly roles and old man’s roles.” The first claim is at best debatable, the other two simply wrong.

—Gary Taylor