“Malt Does More Than Milton Can”

         In the A.E. Houseman’s poem “Terrence, This Is Stupid Stuff,” friends are together at a bar and dissatisfied with Terrence’s depressing demeanor and complaining about his desolate poetry. Therefore, the speaker informs Terrence that they want poetry to entertain and cheer, instead of depress: “Come, pipe a tune to dance to, lad” (line 14). This angers Terrence, leading him to mockingly and sardonically respond by presenting a good contention to their opinions: “And malt does more than Milton can/ To justify God’s ways to man” (lines 21-22). If that was not powerful enough, he even further shoots his friends down by saying, “Ale, man, ale’s the stuff to drink/ For fellows whom it hurts to think:/ Look into the pewter pot/ To see the world as the world’s not” (lines 23-26). Therefore, Terrence claims that those who only want fluffy entertainment to avoid painful reality are in for a real shocker in life. When truly negative situations come along, people who expose themselves to painful reality will have built up immunity to pain as the King Mithridates did for arsenic (lines 59-76).

         The craving for fluffy entertainment is even more prevalent today, where the entertainment business is a multi-billion dollar industry. Many movies released into “the mainstream” are void of backbone and fit an exact formula that allows viewers to escape into mawkish sentiment. Some of these movies that create a happy, sunny ending are horrible, yet others are great films and true works of art. Either way, should films, songs, plays, and books only be made for viewers to escape into a dream world? With so much misery in the world, some would answer yes, for why would they pay money to see even more harshness? Yet, others, like Terrence, believe that it is essential to present reality on the screen, and I strongly agree with him. For, many problems have formed by these false expectations presented in the films.

         Love stories are the best examples of negative consequences from air-brushed reality. The media has filled humans’ minds with expectations of a perfect, happy ending. In sex scenes, every hair is in place, and every move is perfectly smooth. Films just so happen to leave out the awkward, embarrassing moments that often come during intimacy in reality. Characters never have bad breath or bed head or fat days. The negative result is that people become very disappointed with actuality and still seek to find the perfect movie ending, because they are led to believe it exists. Hence, writers, songs, plays, and films should also put out works that reflect reality, even brutal reality, to offset the fairytale stories, and condition people for “the real world,” and not MTV’s Real World.

         In the 1879 play A Doll’s House, Henrik Ibsen sets the scene for a painfully “perfect” marriage between the characters Nora and Torvald. Having been married for almost a decade, the two still appear to be obsessed with each other by saying sweet nothings and calling each other pet names. Yet, no marriage can be that perfect, and Ibsen quickly reveals that Nora is keeping a secret from her husband about a loan. Being in the banking business, Torvald would be highly offended that she took out a loan in the first place, for debt is his enemy. Even worse, she has disobeyed the law by forging her father’s signature on the note. For three-fourths of the play, Nora plays games with Torvald until the truth unravels. As a result, the mask of the perfect marriage comes off, and both Nora and Torvald are left confused. For their whole marriage has been based on “fluff,” and this is as heart-shattering as a child realizing Santa Clause does not exist. The child then begins to question all truths, because what she has been told her whole life is truly a lie. This is the same with their marriage, especially for Nora, because she realizes that her whole identity has been based on a man. Hence, Nora does not even know herself, her wants and desires; neither does she understand why she cannot sign a note by herself or eat macaroons whenever she wants. Therefore, Nora decides to leave her husband to seek answers to unanswered questions.

         In modern times of feminism and half of marriages ending in divorce, this plot does not seem shocking. However, in the late 1800’s in conservative Norway, this play was so shocking that people saw it as a threat to the institution of marriage itself. Yet, Henrik simply wanted to ruffle feathers by exploring a sensitive subject and point out the flaws in his society. Women were not treated as equals in his day, and he believed that they should be. Well, he succeeded in making an imprint, because Henrik is considered to be “the father” of modern drama. He was like Terrence, believing that media can be used to make change in society instead of merely providing light-hearted entertainment.

         Another work that set the stage for modern drama is the novel Washington Square. Published in 1880 and written by Henry James, this story again goes against the grain of happily ever after love stories. It also explores gender issues like A Doll’s House, for Catherine is under the domination of her father, Dr. Sloper. Her identity and self-perception has been based on her father almost her entire life, at least until the charming Morris arrives. Coming back form adventures in Europe, Morris becomes smitten with the “ugly duckling” Catherine and seeks her hand in marriage. This can first appear to be a Cinderella story where the handsome prince takes away the oppressed, plain girl from a bad situation. Yet, this is not true, for Dr. Sloper prevents this from happening, and Morris seems to be motivated by greed to support his playboy ways. Therefore, Catherine is still left unwed and alone, yet Morris coming into her life does not leave her back where she began. Instead, he made her stronger to stand up to her father’s condescension and begin a life of her own with confidence.

         Directed by William Wyler in 1949, the movie adaptation of Henry’s novel The Heiress takes Catherine’s success even further. In the last scene of the movie, Morris returns older, unsuccessful, not as charming, and seeking her hand in marriage, again. In the novel, she politely refuses, yet in the film, Catherine (Olivia de Havilland) leads Morris (Montgomery Clift) to believe that she will. However, payback time leads and Catherine to stand him up with a smirk on her face, leaving Morris screaming in desperation, banging on the door. Either way, both the novel and the movie do not present a classic fairytale of boy meets girl, boy gets girl. Instead, more of a reality is presented through the character of Catherine.

         Both of these works set the stage for the modern 1947 play by Tennessee Williams, A Streetcar Named Desire. The most disturbing of the three works mentioned, this play takes viewers even further into gruesome reality about desperate people. Involving subjects of rape, sex with minors, alcoholism, spousal abuse, homosexuality, and mental illness, Tennessee’s work is still shocking today in 2007. Even though it is unpleasant, the play is brilliant, captivating, and even witty. It had so much success that Hollywood wanted a piece of it in 1951. Directed by Elia Kazan, the film actually was censored more than the original play, because of the executives in Hollywood disagreeing with people like Terrence. They thought it needed to be polished for audiences not wanting that much of a dose of realism. However, the movie is still disturbing, yet brilliant like the play, and viewers are left both amazed and rattled. For the character of Stanley, played by Marlon Brando, arises emotion in the audience by his disgusting brutality. However, to settle the anger of the audience, the film, unlike the play, ends with Stella (Kim Hunter) developing enough courage to leave Stanley.

         All three of the works mentioned support Terrence’s argument that entertainment should not exclusively seek to be pleasing to the ear, for writers have much more potential than producing a feel good sensation in order for humanity to escape from the inevitable misery of life. However, happy ending movies should still be available for those purposes, because there is no harm done. Yet, if entertainment solely produced perfect scenarios of perfect lives, harm is done. In addition to producing the immunity to pain like Mitharades, entertainment has the possibility to shed light on problems in society and seek to make a change. One can look at such controversial films as Ron Howard’s 2006 The Da Vinci Code or Mel Gibson’s 2004 The Passion of Christ and know that films have the power to ruffle feathers. In addition, the question still remains, “Does art imitate life or life imitate art?” The answer is both; hence, entertainment has a great potential to make an impact in society.

Work Cited

Housman, A.E. A Shropshire Lad. London: K. Paul, Trench, Treubner, 1896; Bartleby.com., 1999. 11 Dec. 2007 (www.bartleby.com/123/).

Sarah Landolt

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