Monday, September 17, 2012

Taproot woos fans of Dorothy L. Sayers in upcoming 'Gaudy Night'

From the Seattle Times:  Taproot woos fans of Dorothy L. Sayers in upcoming 'Gaudy Night'

Lord Peter Wimsey was not really looking for love. But when he took on the challenge of trying to clear an erudite, attractive and resolute young woman charged with murder, it just happened. The dapper aristocrat and amateur sleuth fell, and fell hard.
It all transpired in "Strong Poison," a 1930 mystery novel in the popular Lord Peter cycle written by Dorothy L. Sayers.
It wasn't until five years later, when another book in the series, titled "Gaudy Night," came out, that Sayers turned Harriet Vane, the woman whose life he had saved, into a protagonist — a character well ahead of her time, and in key respects similar to the remarkable author who created her.
Vane is, in effect, a heroine in "Gaudy Night," which has been successfully dramatized for British television and radio. A stage adaptation of the novel, by Frances Limoncelli, was well-received in its Chicago debut and opens this week at Seattle's Taproot Theatre.
The crux of the plot: Harriet, a brainy British mystery writer, gets embroiled in a sinister disturbance when she attends a "gaudy night" (an expression borrowed from Shakespeare, to connote an all-out party) at her alma mater, fictional Shrewsbury College, Oxford. Though no murder takes place during the reunion, the proceedings are marred by an ominous succession of physical and verbal attacks on female teachers and alums.
With her friend, the expert crime-solver Lord Peter, off on a diplomatic mission to Italy, it is largely up to Vane to sort through the suspects and arcane clues, and identify the crafty perpetrator.
That's the mystery part. And what was groundbreaking about both "Strong Poison" and "Gaudy Night"? The brilliance and fierce independence of a witty, learned female character viewed by some scholars as the first openly feminist sleuth in mystery literature.
Private lives
The Vane File: Orphaned young, Harriet earned her living by the pen from her early 20s on. She defied social mores by hanging out with the free-loving artistic rebels of London's Bloomsbury set. Determined to maintain her autonomy, suspicious of extreme wealth and wary of a conventional, male-dominated marriage, she turned down the dashing Lord Peter's hasty proposal of marriage in "Strong Poison" — with second thoughts later.
Sayers' own eventful, accomplished life did not include sleuthing.
But Dorothy Leigh Sayers, the daughter of an Oxford school headmaster, was also a scholarly woman intrigued by mystery. She studied Latin from the age of 6, and was among the first wave of women to be educated at the vaunted Oxford University, graduating with honors in modern languages.
Sayers probably had the goods to be an Oxford don herself. But after receiving her degree, she preferred working for publishers and an ad agency rather than in the "ivory tower" of academia. Writing was her passion, and after introducing Lord Peter Wimsey in the 1923 novel "Whose Body?" she penned 10 more Wimsey mysteries (several featuring his beloved Harriet Vane), and made her living writing.
However, Sayers had one hand in classic literature, the other in modern lit. In addition to best-selling mysteries she wrote poetry, translated medieval French and Italian works, turned out thoughtful essays on religion and philosophy, lectured frequently. She was part of a heady literary circle that included her friends and fellow scribes T.S. Eliot and C.S. Lewis.
The Wimsey-Vane saga ended with the book "Busman's Honeymoon." (Upon her death in 1957, Sayers left an unfinished Wimsey-Vane mystery, "Thrones, Dominations" which was later "completed" by author Jill Paton Walsh.)
Eventually Sayers turned to another passion: the theater. She adapted "Busman's Honeymoon" for the stage and wrote several other plays — including a controversial radio drama for children about the life of Jesus. A champion of humanistic Christianity, Sayers had Christ speaking in modern rather than biblical parlance, thereby triggering a fierce public debate.
For her time, Sayers' private life was as unconventional as Vane's. After an intense affair, she bore a son out of wedlock. (He was raised by relatives, as her nephew). In her early 30s, she married a journalist, yet continued her demanding literary career unabated.
She apparently rejected the term "feminism" and did not want to be allied with any liberation movement. Yet she championed higher education for women in "Gaudy Night," and gave Harriet Vane a keen sense of autonomy (as well as a lacerating wit). And in a pair of intriguing think pieces collected in her book "Are Women Human? Penetrating, Sensible, and Witty Essays on the Role of Women in Society," Sayers made a strong case for equal opportunity, and the right to reach one's highest potential in any chosen calling — regardless of gender or social class.
"What is repugnant to every human being," Sayers wrote, "is to be reckoned always as a member of a class and not as an individual person."
Harriet Vane could not have said it better.


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