Thursday, 12 March 2009
234: Ronald Searle and Geoffrey Gorer
from “Modern Types”, by Geoffrey Gorer and Ronald Searle, 1955
If you have visited Sadler's Wells or Covent Garden during the ballet season, you have almost certainly seen, though you may not necessarily have observed, Esme. For Esme is mad about ballet; and nearly every night of the season, when finances permit, will be found standing in the queue, occupying one of the (usually) cheaper seats, waiting outside the stage door, or discussing present or past performances with other balletomanes.
These discussions tend to be competitive statements of the number of performances witnessed - the winner being the one who can claim the highest number - rather than critical in any usual meaning of the term. Sometimes a dancer will be stated to have excelled him or her self on a given occasion; sometimes - though this will usually be disputed - it will be averred that he or she was not quite up to the usual form. Most of the time, however, they will be pure panegyrics, paeans of praise to the divinities across the footlights. Nearly all the dancers are treated as 'absolute', so that comparisons are rarely made; neither Esme nor the other discutants have any standards of comparison by which they could rate them. It is only in very recent years that they have discovered this art of their predilection.
Visits to the ballet are the high spots, almost the reason for living, in an otherwise fairly drab and uneventful life. Although deeply, deeply 'artistic', Esme is not creative; and the job in store or office, essential though it be for the necessities of life, as well as for the price of theatre seats and specialized magazines, gives little scope to the 'taste', the 'individual touches' which Esme would be so happy to contribute. Nor does the bed-sitter, whether at home or in 'digs', allow for more than small objects 'picked up for a song' and lots of photographs and old programmes; parents and landladies are equally narrow-minded when it comes to structural alterations and major redecoration.
The workaday world has very little to offer Esme; indeed it might be described as flat and two-dimensional, as contrasted with the three-dimensional' solid' world of music and mime. Esme feels much more deeply and much more personally about the dancers who never utter a word, than about talkative colleagues or acquaintances untransfigured by spotlights. The only meaningful link between Esme and other human beings is through common devotion to the ballet, so that every relation takes on the nature of a triangle.
Although so passionately interested in watching professionals dance, Esme has little interest or pleasure in the dance hall or other occasions where people can dance together. Esme is, especially in some aspects of life, fastidious, and fmds physical contact with other people, above all the fairly close contact with the other sex which is an almost inevitable concomitant to dancing, somewhat distasteful. As far as conscious awareness goes, the sentiment provoked is one of boredom and lack of ease, rather than any deeper anxiety; but occasional nightmares suggest that the situation is fraught with imaginary dangers. Besides, when one worships the poetry of movement, how can one happily engage in the doggerel of untrained or semi-trained jogging and hopping of which ballroom dancing is composed?
The lack of ease which becomes acute when dancing is in question is never quite absent in ordinary life. Esme's body is somewhat ill-disciplined; arms and legs tend to get twisted up in each other, or to make ill-controlled and sudden movements, hands tend to clamminess, the skin breaks out in minor eruptions; and Esme is extremely conscious of those minor awkwardnesses and disfigurements, and believes that other people pay inordinate attention to them. Sitting in the dark, and watching the grace and ease of the dancers, Esme can forget the body of the watcher and can receive much the same sort of vicarious pleasure as other people - 'insensitive people' Esme would call them - receive from watching professional sport.
Nevertheless, Esme is probably enjoying the happiest years of an unsatisfactory life. With parents who made no attempt to understand the ugly duckling (never, alas! to develop into a swan), and schoolmates quick to recognize a victim who would never retaliate to mockery or grosser unkindness, a person born to be bullied, childhood and adolescence were periods of almost continuous unhappiness and loneliness, of secret tears and vague day-dreams of a different life. Today, Esme is sure that these day-dreams were dreams of the world of ballet, of light and music, of beautiful, sensuous bodies moving effortlessly in intricate patterns.
For the next few years, these realized day-dreams will probably satisfy Esme, while life slips by from youth to maturity to middle age. But one day, it is to be feared, this will no longer be enough; and then the outcome may well be tragic. In the meantime, performances of the ballet are frequent enough; and if you look with a little care, you will see Esme somewhere round the theatre.
A rather coded collaboration from pre-Wolfenden days. First time I read this as being about a woman and it just about made sense but I had an inkling I was missing something. Second time around and I realised that there’s not a gender specific pronoun in the entire piece. All the other pieces in this series of metropolitan taxonomies collected from “Punch” magazine feature “he”s and “she”s without fear or favour, but not this one. On top of that, consider the “artistic” inclinations, the emphatic mode of speech, the intense sexual reservations, and what we’ve really got here is a certain sort of desperately sublimating homosexual. Esme is a female name, no doubt, but there’s not much that’s terribly female about Searle’s accompanying illustration. It’s androgynous, either a young woman trying to suppress her feminine sexuality, or else a casually, but not ostentatiously, effeminate young man – slightly teased hair, dreamy eyes, and plimsoll-shod splayed legs. Keeps one guessing, eh? Altogether this is an exercise in ambivalence, upon which knowing spectators can project their suspicions. As far as “artistic” inclinations go, it’s significant that it’s not cinema or poetry but ballet that has Esme’s devotions. Ballet and the theatre have always been associated with homosexuals. Hell, the late ‘60s London gay style magazine “Jeremy” had regular features and reviews of the latest ballets, not to mention the Trocaderos of the last 20-30 years.