Taking the Curse off It

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“Taking the curse of it” is a writing/filmmaking term meaning to prevent something getting too sententious or ponderous by undercutting the serious with the comic. When misapplied, you get that ghastly formality at the Oscars where the host will make some lame wisecrack as soon as somebody’s said something a bit political or potentially meaningful. But in general it’s a very good method for keeping the tone varied, which you probably need to do “to stop ’em falling asleep,” as Olivier might put it. Preston Sturges, whose tone was recklessly varied at all times, was the master of it: see the end of CHRISTMAS IN JULY.

Which brings us again to screenwriter and playwright Charles Wood. After blogging about his plays, I was thrilled to be put in touch with his daughter Kate, and through her the Great Man himself, and beyond thrilled to hear that he liked what I’d said.

Since then I’ve ordered a collection of his plays, because having read a copy of ‘H’, or Monologues in Front of Burning Cities, I felt the need to own it and have it handy for reference. Dealing with the Indian  Mutiny of 1857, it’s a sweeping epic full of grotesque humour, tragedy and spectacle (I’m intrigued as to how they staged the elephant at the National Theatre). Although Wood’s later play, Veterans, is somewhat inspired by characters and events from the filming of CHARGE OF THE LIGHT BRIGADE, which Wood scripted, it’s written as an imaginary account of the making of an imaginary film of ‘H’.

A highlight for me is this prayer by an army surgeon:

SURGEON SOOTER: On my knees, I sink to Thee my

Lord, that Thou shalt find a

way to Guide Me that I May

Not Kill,

that Thou shalt keep Thy high

bright sun from in the wounds

of those under my care,

that Thou shalt take from the

Poor Skill in my hands

all that which is Clumsy

and Poison,

that Thou shalt Protect

my bandages from rust and

rot, and Thou shalt Stop

my ears to sighing and cursing

under my knife, that Thou shalt

spare my coat tail from the

plucks of those that know they

are Dead, that Thou shalt bring

me to those made Strong in their

Faith, that I might tell them

they die and thus bring them

to Life, this pleasant deception

give me . . . for I have

never, angry in voice denounced

Thy Disease,

Thy Wounds,

Thy Sickness,

Thy Filth in which I Labour.

Thou hast set me to labour in

the realm of Ignorant Science,

give me some sparing,

as Thou hast spared me in other

times, other conflicts of man

and death; keep me Sane and keep

me Unaffected.

Use plenty of brown soap. (He adds as an afterthought of advice.)

The whole thing is quite brilliant, moving and strange and particular. As with THE CHARGE OF THE LIGHT BRIGADE, the use of language is an imaginative evocation of Victorian speech, inspired by writings of the time and answering the sensible question “Why should we make them talk like us?” The last line, which segues dazedly from one kind of formal speech (prayer) to another (doctor’s orders) strikes me as quite wonderful, and my inability to express why is part of what I like about it.

I have been unable to learn if brown soap was commonly used for any particular medical problem.

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