Monday, February 20, 2012

# 59 Zuleika Dobson – Max Beerbohm

The magician herself.

Zuleika in the flesh?

Three Seated Suits: Thackeray, Beerbohm, Wolfe

An Open Letter to Tim Burton

Dear Tim,

Even now some of us look beyond the certain future victories of Dark Shadows and Frankenweenie to the time when the majority of the myriad strokes, plaudits and remunerations have been received, digested and approximated (as you know, they will be too numerous to count precisely) and after all the glitter has been swept up and re-flung and the scarlet carpets vacuumed and rolled and unrolled for the less talented auteurs in Hollywood. It is never premature to contemplate our next banquet or summer vacation and so, at this point in history, we can’t help ourselves from speculating about your artistic prospects in the years 2013 and 2014. Without insinuating that your plate could be anything less than heaped in light of your imaginative fecundity, we humbly propose that you adapt Max Beerbohm’s 1911 novel, Zuleika Dobson, as your next venture.

Our appreciation of your decades-old embrace of death done artfully and fancifully (as in Beetlejuice and Corpse Bride) has eclipsed our potential compunction over presuming to tell you how to go about your business. We are further bolstered by the estimation of your respect for some of Old England’s idiosyncratic crannies (you admired the “over-the-top” thrust of the Sondheimian rendition of Sweeny Todd and the “trippiness” of the book behind Alice in Wonderland). You must agree it was natural for us to take a blood oath that you would be drawn to Beerbohm's spectacle of the mass suicide of strapping, well-bred Oxonians—prompted by the love of a dark beauty who is also a middling magician—as depicted in an eloquent, farcical and sagacious manner. If you are already planning your version of Zuleika at the time of this treacly correspondence, we simply ask that you list it on IMDB so we can crow about our prescience to family and friends and temporarily break free from the languid solipsism of our weekend scribbling.

As you shepherd your Zuleika Dobson into pre-production, we suggest you attach to the project a compelling anchor star who evokes immediate industry and public enthusiasm because of her general magnetism and her aptness for the role. But who could possibly play Beerbohm’s femme fatale of the Thames? This role demands bewitching, world-renowned pulchritude (though Miss Dobson is “not strictly beautiful”), manifest ease amid luxury, and comedic self-regard. Superficially, it was written of the siren, “She’s dark. She looks like a foreigner...” and that “an Elizabethan would have called her ‘gipsy.'” Moreover, she has violet eyes. Can there be one woman to fit such a bill?

Let us present Mila Kunis, whose unforgettable acquaintance you have likely made at The Ivy or at Winona Ryder’s house by the pool, if she has one. Known at large for “her fiery and daring personality,” according to, the Ukrainian born Miss Kunis has conquered the small screen as the “rich, spoiled, selfish, conceited” Jackie Burkhart of That Seventies Show and the big screen as the sensuous, dangerous Lily of Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan. The sultry actress does not possess violet orbs like Zuleika but she does suffer from Heterochromia iridis, a splendid affliction that produces mismatched and perpetually beguiling eyes.

Tim, in addition to the sweet sickness you will suffer as you inwardly direct Miss Kunis through the quads of Oxford, you will also become captivated by the singularity of Max Beerbohm himself. Like you, Max could draw: Gerald Scarfe anointed him one the ten greatest cartoonists ever on account of his famed caricatures. In your limnings, the two of you revel in the exaggeration of heads and physical features. Though he aimed for effects other than the grotesqueness that you obsess over, Max exists as one of your predecessors, you will easily perceive. He was simultaneously a cultural insider and outsider in his era, a status that you yourself may not shun. Not surprisingly, Max liked masks, which caused Oscar Wilde to ask a mutual friend, “When you are alone with him, Sphinx, does he take off his face and reveal his mask?”

Zuleika Dobson, Beerbohm’s only novel, emerged very roughly midway between satires of especial note: William Makepeace Thackeray’s Vanity Fair of 1848 and Tom Wolfe’s The Bonfire of the Vanities of 1987. Tourists of the monumentally vain need not stop between these epics to take in Zuleika Dobson, but they are not disappointed if they do. From the multitude of comparisons between the writings of the natty Beerbohm and the urbane Wolfe, we have culled Leni Zumas’s view that, “…Beerbohm resembles Tom Wolfe…because he leaves the reader without a strong sense of ‘what to do’ about what has been satirized. Instead, Beerbohm seems to celebrate the parody itself…” We now proffer the comparison that a Tim Burton film inventively mocks conventions and celebrates style, without prescribing an antidote. Roger Ebert observed such a sensibility in his review of the masterpiece, Edward Scissorhands:

Burton uses special effects and visual tricks to create sights that have never been seen before. The movie takes place in an entirely artificial world, where a haunting gothic castle crouches on a mountain-top high above a storybook suburb, a goofy sitcom neighborhood where all of the houses are shades of pastels and all of the inhabitants seem to be emotional clones of the Jetsons.
It is a negligible mental stretch to envision a Burtonesque portrayal of gothic Oxford and the absurd Edwardian herd of cloistered dons and students conducting their pageants and ministering to their cliques.

Aye, Beerbohm presents motifs that could only appeal to your palate. The tale offers phantoms, a favorite phenomenon of yours, for wispy commentary. To our greater delight, there are recurring scenes involving a series of sculpted heads that Max’s narrator coins The Emperors. From an Oxford website we learn that: “The official name for such heads is ‘herms.’” From the very font of the English language, Oxford’s own Dictionary, we understand that “herms” arises from Hermes and means: “A statue composed of a head…placed on the top of a quadrangular pillar.” These bearded busts stand sentinel in front of the venerable Sheldonian Theatre, “the principal assembly room of the University and the regular meeting-place of Congregation, the body of resident Masters of Arts which controls the University's affairs.” Commonplace in antiquity, herms, we worry, may not exist anywhere in America (Harvard University’s Sanders Theater, modeled after the Sheldonian, instead offers elevated busts affixed to its fa├žade). Indeed, as one inspects the exteriors of museums and academic institutions across the United States, the prevalence of vacant plinths suggests a retroactive Yankee antipathy toward neoclassicism. Finish what you started, America—we would urge—and place a statue on every pedestal!

As they ruminate about the progressions of the doom that Zuleika Dobson is bound to induce, the Roman Emperors serve very capably as a Greek Chorus. Rather than keep these figures stoic and silent, we elect to think of them animated and singing. Tim, we can only wonder what ditties your longtime collaborator Danny Elfman will dream up for them! Based on your conversation with Elfman in Interview Magazine, we know that you will contribute in no small fashion to the melodies that he will engineer:

Elfman: I’d like to touch on a hidden talent of yours, which is writing rhymes and lyrics. When I began the songs for [The Nightmare Before Christmas], I was surprised to see that you had already written a lot of the great lyric pieces, all of which got assimilated and incorporated into the final songs.
Putting words in the mouths of Emperors—what fun that will be!

Aye, Zuleika Dobson lends itself to the operatically inclined. One Connecticut Yankee, Rod Mitchell, composed Zuleika: The Musical in 2005. A more robust expedition occurred during the 1950’s when James Ferman and Peter Tranchell co-created the musical comedy Zuleika. The former, who wrote the book and lyrics, was a Long Islander who traveled to England, studied at Cambridge and ultimately became a controversial British film censor. The composer Tranchell was “amongst the brightest stars of the post-war Cambridge music…[who] founded the Cambridge University Light Music Society whose greatest triumph was the production at the Arts Theatre of Tranchell’s musical Zuleika Dobson in 1954. Three years later it was given a London production at the Saville Theatre.”

Tim, we conjectured that you and Danny Elfman would want to hear this work in order to stand on the shoulders of these giants, so we contacted one John Gwinnell, who maintains a website devoted to Mr. Tranchell, to ascertain the existence and accessibility of any recordings. Mr. Gwinnell graciously replied by email:

The story of the gestation and eventual production of Tranchell’s Zuleika is long, complicated and fascinating, but I am afraid you must wait until I eventually finish the biography (a couple more years at least) to discover the details. Rest assured I will put you on the mailing list to be informed once it finally appears. There were no recordings made at the time; you might be lucky and find sheet music of some of the numbers available from on-line retailers (which is how I found my own copies) – arranged by Felton Rapley and published by Chappells in the 50s. The work was expected to be a huge popular success, which is why these arrangements were made and published, but ultimately it was a disappointment to everyone. Chappells had an arrangement of ‘hits from the show’ made for brass band, but this perished in the disastrous warehouse fire – the last in a long serious of unhappy circumstances dogging the show (earlier, during the pre-London provincial tour, the leading lady slashed her wrists in an Oxford hotel and then ran off with the producer). The London run itself was during one of the hottest summers known, and in an unsuitable large theatre...
The pyrotechnics, doom and mystery that attended this affair cannot help but augment the desire to do Zuleika and her prestidigitation honor through a cinematic musical that will be, to use your words, “an even mix of funny, tragic, overly dramatic, all at the same time.”

Tim, if during your research you plan to purchase the book, we do not recommend you follow in our penny-pinching footsteps. Online we acquired, at what seemed a very reasonable price, a soft copy of the novel, the sight of which upon receipt would doubtless have furrowed the author’s prodigious brow on account of its abject homeliness. The unwieldy, letter-sized volume was printed on copy paper in Lexington, KY on March 8, 2011 (the back page reads), the same day the centathlete ordered the book. One could not assail the layout and typography of the text because no human consideration graced the design and it is not sporting to insult a computer. The back cover tenders a solemn proclamation that begins, “This collection serves as a vessel to carry forth the light shed by the greatest writers our world has ever known." The nature and contents of this edifying collection are curiously unspecified but we do appreciate the assurance that the output of authors on other worlds will not complicate our voyages therein. Faint and blurry, the author’s name and the book’s title are listed quite plainly on the front cover, which features a nineteenth century coastal tableau that either relates to Zuleika Dobson in an obscure but revelatory way or, more likely, benefits the bank account of someone in a side office at the publisher. This last entity, incidentally, is not named in the volume; the record of the purchase indicates it is CreateSpace, a division of Amazon which specializes in on-demand printing, self-publishing and sundry other services, though evidently not the attractive, appropriate packaging of actual literary classics.

On that rather flat note, we leave you perhaps momentarily fatigued but sufficiently catalyzed to embrace Zuleika Dobson. We thank you in advance for sharing with us your progress in this regard.


The Centathlete et al.