Academic journal article Marvels & Tales

Angela Carter's Fairy Orientalism: "Overture and Incidental Music for A Midsummer Night's Dream"

Academic journal article Marvels & Tales

Angela Carter's Fairy Orientalism: "Overture and Incidental Music for A Midsummer Night's Dream"

Article excerpt

In a 1985 interview with John Haff enden, Angela Carter said that her intention in rewriting fairy tales in The Bloody Chamber and Other Tales (1979) was "not to do versions . . . but to extract the latent content from the traditional stories and to use it as the beginning of new stories" (Haffenden 84). Carter's new tales were an exercise in imaginative writing predicated upon a critical understanding, and what they exposed and reconfigured was the "patriarchal world" of the traditional stories (Day 133). It is a comparable world that Carter, in Overture and Incidental Music for A Midsummer Night's Dream," partly focuses on in the fairy plot of Shakespeare's play What makes "Overture and Incidental Music" important, however, is that Carter's inquiry into the gender dispositions of A Midsummer Night's Dream involves at the same time an exposure of what she identifies as an early imperialist element in the fairy-tale dimension of the play.

"Overture and Incidental Music" was first published in the magazine Interzone in 1982, a few years after the appearance of Edward Said's Orientalism (1978). The question of the influence of Said's work on Carter has been raised by Charlotte Crofts, who, in a perceptive essay published in 2006 ("The Other of the Other': Angela Carter's 'New-Fangled' Orientalism"), disagreed with an argument that had been put forward by Guido Almansi in his 1994 article "In the Alchemist's Cave: Radio Plays." Almansi had been particularly exercised with "Come Unto These Yellow Sands," one of Carter's radio plays first broadcast on BBC Radio 3 on April 7, 1979, and published in 1985. He took the view that the play betrays "the distant echo of a perfunctory reading" of Said's Orientalism (Almansi 228). Against this view, Crofts noted that "Come Unto These Yellow Sands" in fact displays "an explicit engagement with postcolonial discourse" (91). Crofts extends her discussion into a consideration of "Orientalist" or "postcolonial" perspective in what Loma Sage has identified as a possibly autobiographical piece of writing, "Flesh and the Mirror," which sprang from Carter's experiences in Japan between 1969 and 1972 (Angela Carter 27). In the present essay I focus on the hitherto unexamined ways in which Carter's "Overture and Incidental Music" inquires simultaneously into the patriarchal biases and the Orientalism that pervade the "latent content" of the fairy story that lies at the heart of A Midsummer Night's Dream. Carter's recognition in her story of imperial propensities in Shakespeare's play connects with her interest in the imperial in "Come Unto These Yellow Sands" and in her last novel, Wise Children (1991), both of which allude to A Midsummer Night's Dream and to which I refer in the course of my discussion.

Although "Overture and Incidental Music for A Midsummer Night's Dream" was collected in the Black Venus volume of her short stories (1985), the piece is not a conventional story. It involves a narrative voice, effectively Carter's, that resuscitates various characters from Shakespeare's play and allows them a kind of semi-independent existence, where they do and say things that they do not do or say in the play itself. They both speak in their own voices and are described by the narrative voice. Linden Peach observes of "Overture and Incidental Music" that "an Overture' is normally an introduction, which reverses the chronological relationship between . . . two texts, and does not have to have a close relationship in style to the main piece of music" (146). Carter's prefacing of "Overture and Incidental Music" amounts to a kind of speculative, imaginatively phrased critical perspective on Shakespeare's play, in a manner that parallels Carters simultaneously fictional and analytical procedure in her retelling of the traditional fairy tale in The Bloody Chamber. To discuss Carter's perspective in "Overture and Incidental Music," I must first outline certain key elements in the play itself. …

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