Jilly: Stories That Stand the Test of Time

Universal Themes

Universal Themes

Why do some stories continue to capture the public’s imagination for years, decades or even centuries?

I’ve been thinking about that a lot recently. It started with Outlander. We’ve been talking about the book and the Starz TV series in Kat’s posts here, on our private blog, and in a polite but robust email discussion this week about whether the plot is palatable to a modern audience. Somewhere in the mix, somebody (pretty sure it was Kay) said something like: I always wonder, why this book?

Then last Thursday I went to an event at my home-from-home, the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden, to learn more about the choreographer Kenneth MacMillan’s most successful ballet, Manon, which was 40 earlier this year. At the time of its first performance in March, 1974, MacMillan’s contract as Artistic Director of the Royal Ballet was up for renewal and if he was to keep his job, he needed a winner. Manon was his first attempt at a traditional three-act structure, with a big, operatic storyline, juicy roles for the leading dancers, and a wow factor to capture the public’s imagination.

Here’s what the critics said about it after its first performance:
“Basically, Manon is a slut and Des Grieux is a fool …” Mary Clarke, Guardian
“It is an appalling waste of Antoinette Sibley who, as Manon, is reduced to a nasty little diamond digger.” Jane King, Morning Star.

The public did not agree, and word of mouth did its job. During Manon’s first year, attendances at Covent Garden averaged 92 per cent, and when the Royal Ballet took it to New York, the piece was a raging success. Forty years later the work is a global winner and still reaching new markets. The heroine, Manon, is a complex, sexy dream of a role, and some of the greatest ballerinas in the world have taken on the challenge of defining her.

What’s the key to the story’s longevity?

Here’s MacMillan’s elevator pitch from 1974: “You have a sixteen year-old heroine who is beautiful and absolutely amoral, and a hero who is corrupted by her and becomes a cheat, a liar, and a murderer.”

  • The world-building is amazing. It’s set in eighteenth-century Paris and Louisiana, in a time of decadence and corruption, extreme wealth, terrible poverty, and no middle ground.
  • The characters are fascinating, especially the heroine. Manon is not a good girl. She’s sex personified, and when she has to decide between her gorgeous but broke lover and her seedy, perverted but wealthy admirer, she tries to have her cake and eat it too, which does not turn out well. There’s a lot of flexibility in the way different ballerinas play her – a thrill-seeker, a schemer, a pragmatist, or a victim of her times.
  • The story structure is super-clear:  three acts, built around a series of pas de deux – intense, passionate dances for the hero and heroine that showcase their character arc, from growing desire, sexual fulfilment, betrayal, to the final, tragic ending.
  • The themes are universal – the corrupting effects of power, wealth and sex (and maybe the redemptive power of true love).

If you’d like a taster, here’s a fabulous four-minute excerpt courtesy of Youtube, of legendary French ballerina Sylvie Guillem coming to a sticky end in the arms of wonderful British dancer Jonathan Cope.

If you’d like to see the whole ballet, chances are you’re in luck. The Royal Ballet is live streaming a performance from Covent Garden on 16 October to cinemas worldwide, with a fantastic cast including Argentinian ballerina Marianela Nunez as Manon and lovely Italian Federico Bonelli as Des Grieux. They’re both great actors as well as brilliant dancers, and it should be well worth watching. Check out this link to find a cinema near you.

What’s your recommendation for a book or movie that has stood the test of time? What do you think is the key? Fascinating, flawed characters? Impossible choices? Universal themes? I’d love to know.

8 thoughts on “Jilly: Stories That Stand the Test of Time

  1. Although I’ve heard of Manon, I’ve never seen it. I checked the link, and it’s playing at a cinema near me! Yay!

    I’ve been thinking about this topic this week, too, and I’ve decided that one of the things, anyway, that helps a book develop legs is sex—and somewhat perverted, or at least naughty or forbidden, sex. Not just because sex sells, but because audiences thrive on issues of sexuality that fall outside the mainstream. Readers/viewers can live out fantasies, or moralize about (or be thrilled by) behaviors or situations that they wouldn’t be able to live out—or maybe even talk about—in their own lives. Manon is a great example of this. (Outlander, too, given the beating scene we’ve all talked about.) Also Lolita, Streetcar Named Desire, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, Tess of the D’Urbervilles (or almost anything by Thomas Hardy) and many more. I don’t mean that the suppressed or “unnatural” or otherwise outside-the-mainstream sex necessarily rules the storyline, but that it’s an integrated part of the story, impossible to separate from whatever else might be going on.

    Of course, this is not universally true. You don’t have to look any further than The Wizard of Oz to see that (although I think Dorothy and the Tin Man had a thing). But it’s one thing that seems to keep audiences riveted.

    • Yay, Kay! If you go to see it, I’d love to hear your thoughts afterwards. There are a couple of scenes which I think are right up there with the Outlander beating as discussion material.

      I think you’re right about the sex, and Manon is a very sexy ballet. I found a great quote from Kenneth MacMillan’s widow, Lady MacMillan, in a piece by the Arts Desk blog (http://www.theartsdesk.com/dance/manon-shock-turned-respect): “Kenneth was interested in sexually driven people. You could let rip choreographically. I don’t think he ever set out to upset or shock. Having grown up in the Sixties, he found it extraordinary that while all this new life was coming in through television and film, in the ballet world people were still pretending that girls had wings sprouting from their shoulders. Manon was one of the seminal heroines in literature – he was always interested in the social mix of extreme wealth and extreme poverty, and one of the few things that could get you from one world to the other was sex.”

      Lady MacMillan was at the event last week, and she said (quoting from memory here) she especially likes it when Monsieur G.M. (the rich protector) is played as very creepy and depraved, because that makes Manon’s choice so much harder.

    • The Wizard of Oz is just the first book in the Oz series. There is definitely at least one scene with sexual overtones in one of the other books that I remember clearly. I read the whole series when I was eight and I remember a scene with a naked girl swimming in a lake while a boy (the protagonist of that book) obsessed about her bare breasts bobbing in the water. At eight I could tell that I was missing something and I read that scene over and over trying to figure out what was going on. 🙂 I wouldn’t be surprised if there is a lot more in there with sexual overtones that I just didn’t see at that age.

      You know, now that I’m thinking about it, there may actually be a gang rape scene in there, too (not with the protagonist). Maybe my memory is faulty, but I don’t think so. Well, that’s a little disturbing.

      • Wow. I always learn new things here, but this is an eye-opener. I thought Lewis Carroll was disturbing, but Alice has nothing on bobbing breasts in the Wizard of Oz. Ew. I haven’t read any of the Oz books, didn’t realize there were so many until I googled them just now.

  2. I think one thing that helps a book stand the test of time is good ‘ol GMC. Give ’em some good conflict (with a love twist, in a nod to Kay), strong goals, and deep motivation, and you’ve got a keeper. “Pride and Prejudice” is a good example. Darcy vs. Elizabeth. Darcy vs. Bingley. Wickham vs. …well, pretty much everyone. Miss Bingley vs. Elizabeth and Jane. Mr. Bennett vs. Mrs. Bennett and Lydia. There’s all kinds of great little wars going on in that book and the plot twists that occur as a result make for good reading (and rereading).

    • Yes, Justine! And I think it definitely helps if the characters aren’t too good, and that’s the whole proposition of P&P. Jane and Bingley are too beautiful and kind, and not half as fascinating as Darcy and Lizzie.

      Even more so with Scarlett O’Hara – there’s a fascinating, deeply flawed heroine who will trample anything and anyone to get her goal.

  3. I’m a Pride and Prejudice girl, too. But it took the BBC version to really let me envision how the people-connections worked out in real life. I read it about once a year, and it gets better as I get older. It’s about a very important decision in a girl’s life — love, money, or can I possibly get both with honor? These days, women have other choices besides getting married. But if one isn’t very good at one’s job, what does one do? That’s a reason why I like Bridget Jones’ Diary, as well.

    I read Alice in Wonderland almost every year up until my late 20s, I think. Then some creepy accusations about Charles Dodgson came up that I’ve never been able to dismiss from my mind. Still, the story is about: Does the girl choose, or are things forever chosen for her? (OMG, that sounds super-creepy now! But it’s important for an older girl to have agency — she can choose NOT to fall in line with Creepy Older Guy’s wishes.) The anti-conventionality of the work also deeply appeals to me. Things are not what they seem.

    I’ve enjoyed many classics, and dragged myself through quite a few others, but these are the two that I came back to again and again.

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