All the Rowboats, OR the Other Side of Artifact Appreciation

This past Tuesday I had the good fortune to snag a ticket to a sold-out National Theatre showing of Alan Bennett’s new play People, since my English professor is apparently well-connected as fuck — even in a foreign country. His life, I swear…it must be so interesting.

People was an absolutely stunning show. It follows a heated struggle between a pair of sisters on what to do about their family’s ancestral South Yorkshire home. Over the course of a couple hours you come to learn that the family is over 400 years old, held land, was powerful, and was titled, but once the twentieth century hit, everything changed and the house fell into mismanaged disuse. The older sister, the family’s heiress, wants the house to stay as-is. She wants to keep living in it and keep it in its plastic-wrapped, dusty current condition, and she longs to relive the times when the house was completely ‘taken for granted’ — because only in the time when large estates like this were ‘taken for granted’ was it truly obvious that the English manor lifestyle was not yet extinct. Because the current trend of preserving and memoralizing manor houses means that time is past, the older sister sees the act of turning her family’s home into a museum as an absolute sign the past has died.

The whole thing screams ‘privilege’ — because honestly, how many of us can really relate to ~losing our mansions~ — but there’s an emotional truth in it that nonetheless resonates…especially if you’re like me and have a deep attachment to the English aristocracy and their countryside homes thanks to Keira Knightley movies, the Evelyn Waugh novel Brideshead Revisited, BBC productions, and (of course) Downton Abbey. On a more universal level, it’s about nostalgia, about the world changing too quickly for you to keep up with it, about making earnest things artificial and about becoming a stranger to something you were once familiar with, whether you liked it or not. While there’s indisputable value in preserving a historical treasure for posterity to explore and appreciate, there’s still something horribly sad about the artificial act of preservation.

And it reminded me quite strongly of the Regina Spektor track ‘All the Rowboats’:

All the rowboats in the paintings
They keep trying to row away
And the captains’ worried faces
Stay contorted and staring at the waves
They’ll keep hanging in their gold frames
For forever, forever and a day
All the rowboats in the oil paintings
They keep trying to row away, row away

Hear them whispering French and German
Dutch, Italian, and Latin
When no one’s looking I touch a sculpture
Marble, cold and soft as satin
But the most special are the most lonely
God, I pity the violins
In glass coffins they keep coughing
They’ve forgotten, forgotten how to sing, how to sing

First there’s lights out, then there’s lock up
Masterpieces serving maximum sentences
It’s their own fault for being timeless
There’s a price to pay and a consequence
All the galleries, the museums
Here’s your ticket, welcome to the tombs
They’re just public mausoleums
The living dead fill every room
But the most special are the most lonely
God, I pity the violins
In glass coffins they keep coughing
They’ve forgotten, forgotten how to sing

They will stay there in their gold frames
For forever, forever and a day
All the rowboats in the oil paintings
They keep trying to row away, row away

– – – – –

Photos from this week:

Westminster, 12/4/12

View of the London Eye from Westminster Bridge.

Westminster, 12/4/12

UCL, 12/7/12

UCL gets festive with a Christmas tree.

UCL, 12/7/12

Even the statues get into the holiday spirit (see: hat).

– – – – –

On heavy rotation: “Figure 8” by Ellie Goulding.

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