Angela Carter’s The Curious Room: Plays, Film Scripts and an Opera

imageSometimes the Reaper is just too damn unfair. Angela Olive Stalker Carter died of lung cancer in 1992 at the far too young age of 52. Writer, feminist theorist, folklorist, opera buff, playwright, poet — she was these things and much, much more. Born in Eastbourne, Sussex, England in the most appalling of wartime conditions, she spent her childhood in Yorkshire with her maternal grandmother, a working-class and feminist granny of the north of England. The story is oft repeated ’bout her sitting with Granny by the fire, with a woolen shawl wrapped round her while she told Angela stories and tales by the warmth of the winter hearth.

Carter left public school and started work at the age of nineteen for the Croydon Advertiser, emulating her dear Scottish father who was a journalist working in London. A scant year later she met and married Paul Carter. In 1970, having separated from her husband, Carter went to live in Japan for two years. (She was to divorce him in 1972.) The experience of a radically different culture had a strong influence on her work.

She studied English literature at the University of Bristol, where she certainly added to her already considerable knowledge of myths, legends, and other matters of a folkloric nature. And she was at ease with the European theorists, too. As Andrew Milne notes: ‘She spoke French and German and was interested in the philosophy of De Sade and Bataille regarding sexuality, Irigaray and De Beauvoir for feminist theory, and Genette and Barthes for ideas concerning intertextuality and analysis of texts.’

In 1977, she married Mark Pearce and they settled down in the south of London. She worked on and off over the next decade as part-time lecturer and resident writer at Brown University, Rhode Island, the University of Adelaide, South Australia, and finally at the University of East Anglia, Norwich. She was a prolific writer, covering everything from folk tales rewritten in a feminist vein, such as Old Wives’ Fairy Tale Book, to screenplays and operas.

What we are talking about this night is The Curious Room. It is one of three collections of her writings that were done after her death — the other two are Burning Your Boats: Collected Short Stories, and Shaking a Leg: Collected Writings. I ordered this copy because I had seen an odd film late one night with Angela Lansbury in it entitled The Company of Wolves. The film, which I discovered was written by Angela Carter, is an intense undertaking centered on the folklore of werewolves, and their sexual connotation. Granny (played by Angela Lansbury) tells her granddaughter Rosaleen (Sarah Patterson) strange, disturbing tales that no young child should hear about innocent maidens falling in love with handsome, dark strangers who turn out to be werewolves; about sudden disappearances of said spouses when the moon is round, and of wolves are howling in the woods …. Weirdly enough, Sarah has only one other film to her credit — Snow White!

A scary film, so I wondered how it was as a screenplay. Well, I got my copy of The Curious Room and discovered that The Company of Wolves had started its existence as a radio play. Now, reviewers have called this film ‘a bloodthirsty retelling of the Little Red Riding Hood story’, but the screenplay is much less explicit about Red Riding Hood than the radio play, which refers to Rosaleen as — you guessed it — Red Riding Hood. Keeping in mind that her writing always had a dark, wicked, subversive edge, and that she had been reinventing fairy tales for years at this point, The Company of Wolves is one damn dark piece of writing. Not for children, though certainly suitable for adults — but then Larry Niven once said fairy tales were not intended for children!

After comparing the radio play, the screen play, and the actual film, I can say that the radio play — though interesting in its own right — suffers from not being as metaphorical as the revised The Company of Wolves, which is a step removed from the Red Riding Hood mythos. Rosaleen is a better Red Riding Hood largely because she is not Red Riding Hood. I think that Jack Zipes, an ardent critic of Disney’s homogenization of Red Riding Hood and other fairy tales, would thoroughly approve of her darker, more Grimm-like approach to this tale.

Ah, but you get much more in The Curious Room: Plays, Film Scripts and an Opera than just The Company of Wolves scripts. Here’s a listing of the other goodies herein: radio plays — Vampirella; Come Unto These Yellow Sands; Puss in Boots; and A Self-Made Man; libretto: Orlando; or, The Enigma of the Sexes; screen plays: The Magic Toy Shop; Gun for the Devil; and The Christchurch Murder; stage plays: Lulu; Preface to Come Unto These Yellow Sands; and production notes for the radio plays. Rather mysteriously, you do not get all of her dramatic works, as the editor decided to exclude the scene based on A Midsummer Night’s Dream because it existed as a story first published in Black Venus, and later reprinted in Burning Your Boats: Collected Short Stories. I disagree with his decision, as a screenplay is radically different from a prose piece. He also excluded Angela’s television examination of the life of Christ, The Holy Family Album, on the grounds it ‘lost too much without the pictures and colour…’. I personally think that this is a crock, but editors will be editors.

What is here is quite amazing. Carter’s Puss in Boots is a radio play, an art form largely lost in the States but still present in Europe. Like The Company of Wolves, shape shifting plays an important role here — this is a gentler telling! Vampirella is a dark fantasy that attempts brilliantly to reclaim from the likes of Disney a tale rich in symbolic meanings. And don’t forget The Magic Toy Shop screenplay, based on her novel of the same name, which explores the ever-so-tormented reality of being an adolescent and the heart’s ability to withstand even the deepest and most painful of sorrows.

I suggest starting off with a reading of the two Company of Wolves as they are both good reading and an excellent look at the way she reused material for two different purposes.

Now excuse me as I’m off to find a copy of Burning Your Boats: Collected Short Stories. I really want to see how she treated A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

(Chatto & Windus, 1996)

Iain Nicholas Mackenzie

I'm the Librarian for the Kinrowan Estate. I do love fresh brewed teas, curling, English mysteries and will often be playing Scandinavian or Celtic  music here in the Library here in Kinrowan Hall if the Neverending Session is elsewhere. I'm a violinist too, so you'll me playing in various contradance band such as Chasing Fireflies and Mouse in the Cupboard as well as backing my wife Catherine up on yearly Christmas season tours in the Nordic countries.

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