Menaechmi (The Brothers Menaechmus) by Plautus (c.200 BC)

Prologue

The prologue explains that there were once two little boys, identical twin sons of a merchant of Syracuse, named Menaechmus and Sosicles. One day the father took little Menaechmus on a business trip to Tarentum but while walking through a carnival together they got separated. A trader from Epidamnus found the little boy and took him home with him. The father fell sick with grief and died. His father i.e. the boys’ grandfather, back in Syracuse, renamed Sosicles Menaechmus (the name of the lost boy, who he had always preferred).

So we have now got identical twins both named Menaechmus, one living with his grandfather, one growing up far away in Epidamnus.

(Incidentally, you can see how the title The Brothers Menaechmus is a pastiche of Elizabethan or olde worlde word order. In modern English it would simply be The Menaechmus Brothers or, if this was a brat pack movie, The Menaechmus Boys.)

The years passed and the boys grew to manhood in their separate cities. Back in Epidamnus, Menaechmus reached manhood and the trader gave him a wife and dowry and, when the trader died, Menaechmus inherited his large estate, where he now lives. Anyway, that’s the back story, and now the play begins.

The plot

Enter Peniculus

Enter Peniculus, a prime example of the stock character, the parasitus. The editor and translator of this edition, E.F. Watling, has previously explained that the best way to understand this character type is as a kind of dinner companion for hire – educated men who go from patron to patron ingratiating themselves, trying to get invitations to dinner where they amuse with their witty conversation (the other characters call him a ‘table companion’).

As a result the parasitus is associated with comic speeches about food and Peniculus is no exception, entering to make a speech on the comic premise that, if you wanted to lock people up, to make them secure, you’d do better to give them stunning feasts each day rather than put them in chains. Who would willingly run off and lose the chance of a daily feast?

Thus Peniculus explains that he is Menaechmus’s ‘bond slave’ but willingly reports for duty at his villa for love of the amazing spreads.

Menaechmus the adulterer

Peniculus arrives just as young Menaechmus emerges from his villa, yelling back through the open door at his wife (a very characteristic position for a Plautus character). This opening speech establishes that he is not a noble character but a bad tempered adulterer. He accuses his wife of asking endless questions about his movements and spying on him. In the next breath he justifies her suspicions by revealing that he’s going to meet his mistress, Erotium, tonight and – in a comic manoeuvre – has smuggled out of the house his wife’s dresses by wearing it under his toga.

It’s at this point that Peniculus comes forward, they greet each other, shake hands and Menaechmus shows off to Peniculus his cunning little prank i.e. displays himself wearing the gown.

Menaechmus’ mistress, Erotium

Scared of Menaechmus’s wife, they move shiftily over to the house next door (as in so many of the plays, the set consists of two neighbouring houses) because, lo and behold, right next door is the house of Menaechmus’s mistress, Erotium. He knocks on the door, she comes out he declares his eternal love for her and gives her his wife’s gown, then declares they’re going to have a party at her place, Menaechmus, Peniculus and her, so can she get her cook to start cooking. And with that Menaechmus declares his off to town and exists, followed by his lackey Peniculus.

Erotium calls out her cook, Cylindrus, gives him three pounds and bids him go to the market to buy grub for lunch. When he hears one of them is Menaechmus’s table companion’ he complains that people like him can do the work of of eight men, but off he goes anyway, grumbling.

Quite obviously Menaechmus having a mistress is not designed to make any highfalutin’ moral or ethical points but to maximise the amount of confusion to be caused by the comic conceit of the identical twins: I predict not only his wife but his mistress will be thrown into turmoil by the arrival of the twin.

Enter Sosicles and Messenio

And sure enough enter Sosicles, or that was his original name until his brother was abducted and his grandfather renamed him Menaechmus. He’s just arrived by ship accompanied by his slave Messenio and a group (number unspecified) of slaves carrying his baggage.

Messenio is the grumpy sort of slave and complains to his master, and thus informs the audience, that Sosicles has been traipsing round the entire Mediterranean searching for his brother, calling in at the Danube, Spain, Massilia, Illyria, all over the Adriatic, the Greek colonies and the entire coast of Italy (p.111).

Messenio goes on to explain that the inhabitants of the place they’ve arrived at, Epidamnus, have a bad reputation.

Obviously they’ve arrived in front of Menaechmus’s villa while Messenio makes a long speech about how they haven’t a hope in hell of finding Menaechmus, he must be long dead. At which point Erotium’s cook, Cylindrus, arrives back from the market. When he sees Sosicles he of course thinks he is Menaechmus, the guest for the planned lunch party, waiting outside his mistress’s house. And so into the first of many comic misidentifications and misunderstandings.

Misunderstanding 1 Sosicles and Cylindrus

Cylindrus, of course, thinks Sosicles is Menaechmus arrived for lunch and engages him in casual conversation. Sosicles, of course, is completely bewildered at being addressed familiarly by a strange slave, and when he assumes he (Sosicles) lives next door, with his wife, Sosicles thinks he must be mad and gives him money to buy a sacrifice to make at the shrine of the god of lunatics. Of course, Cylindrus thinks Sosicles is mad – with Sosicles’ slave Messenio chipping in from the sidelines.

Misunderstanding 2 Sosicles and Erotium

Cylindrus goes in the house and is replaced by Erotium who appears and, of course, calls Sosicles ‘darling’ and carries on a normal conversation with him (p.115), reminding him that he a) brought her a gown of his wife’s b) asked her to prepare lunch for him and his table companion (p.116). Obviously, Sosicles thinks she is mad, though is puzzled how she knows his name.

N.B: It’s important to remember that the twins both have the same name. Menaechmus was always the name of the boy who was abducted, the other one, Sosicles, was renamed Menaechmus by his grandfather. So they both have the same name. When I refer to Sosicles in this summary it is to clarify who is who, but he isn’t referred to as Sosicles in the play.

All these confusions give Messenio the opportunity to say he warned his boss about Epidamnus – looks like the reputation is true, it really is full of lunatics.

After conferring with his slave Sosicles takes the decision that he’s going to play along with this pretty woman. If she wants to give him a free lunch and witter on about his non-existent wife, then, sure, he’ll play nice. So he apologises to Erotium for being confused and she, now mollified, invites him into her house. Messenion warns him to watch himself but Sosicles reckons he’s on to a good thing, a free lunch and then maybe some afternoon delight.

Misunderstanding 3 Sosicles and Peniculus

The table companion Peniculus has been at some public meeting all morning and arrives in a bad mood to spy Sosicles emerging from Erotium’s house, obviously drunk, with a laurel wreath at a rakish angle on his head and calling back to Erotium that he promises to take the gown (the one Menaechmus gave her that morning) to a dressmaker’s in town to have it adjusted.

When Peniculus steps forward to castigate Sosicles for starting (and finishing) lunch without telling him, Sosicles, naturally enough, says he’s no idea who he is or what he’s talking about. As in every one of these encounters, they each think the other must be mad. Peniculus vows revenge, swearing he’ll tell Menaechmus’s wife all about his affair.

Misunderstanding 4 Sosicles and the maid

Erotium’s maid pops out of her house and asks Sosicles one more favour. Can he please take these gold bracelets, the ones he stole from his wife and gave to Erotium, to a goldsmith and have some gold added and reshaped. Sosicles is no longer bewildered, he is master of the situation and milking it for all he’s got, so he willingly accepts gold bracelets.

Then the maid takes things a bit further by asking if he can get her some pretty little gold earrings, please. Then next time he pops over she’s be everso nice to him (flutter eyelashes). Sosicles says, Sure, where’s the gold? But when the maid says she doesn’t have any, she was hoping he’d buy her some as a gift he loses interest and, realising it, the maid goes back into Erotium’s house.

At which point Peniculus emerges from Menaechmus’s house with the latter’s wife. He has told her everything. She is furious and asks herself how much longer she has to put up with this insulting behaviour? They spot Menaechmus coming and hide.

Misunderstanding 5 Menaechmus and wife

Sosicles had exited the stage in one direction. Now from the opposite direction enters the real, or original, Menaechmus. He delivers a page long soliloquy about what a pain it is being patron to a number of clients; he’s wasted his whole morning sorting out litigation around a client of his, an obvious crook, but in a patron-client society that’s what you have to do. He laments not having got away earlier for lunch although hopes the gift of the gown he stole from his wife will placate her. His wife is hiding behind a bush and hears him say this!

She steps out and accuses him of being a slimeball, egged on by the irate table companion Peniculus (‘That’s the way to talk to him’). Menaechmus desperately back pedals, disclaiming any knowledge of a mistress or stolen gown. This goes on for some time with Menaechmus until the furious wife finally says he’s not getting back into their house till he returns the gown, and goes into the house slamming the door!

Misunderstanding 6 Menaechmus and Erotium

Oh well, if his wife’s locked him out at least Erotium will give him a warm welcome. She’s pleased to see him back so soon but, of course, when he asks for the gown she is confused: she gave it to him not half an hour ago. His insistence that she give it back infuriates her and she slams the door in his face. Oops. Now he’s locked out of both women’s houses. He says he’ll go back into town looking for a friend to cheer him up.

Misunderstanding 7 Sosicles returns

Menaechmus’s wife looks out the door and sees Sosicles return with the famous gown. She thinks he’s come to make up with her. But when she confronts him, Sosicles is, of course, completely non-plussed and denies any knowledge of her. At which point, understandably, she reverts to her former fury. When she tells him that an hour ago he promised to find the gown and give it back to her he has no idea what she’s on about. All Sosicles knows is he spent a nice time with Erotium who gave him a gown to be altered. Who’s this madwoman ranting at him?

She’s so furious she sends a servant to fetch her aged father. He’ll sort out her faithless husband! When he arrives he tells his daughter off for being a scold and keeping such a tight watch on her husband i.e. he takes Menaechmus’s side. But then…

Misunderstanding 8 Sosicles and the father

Then the father actually confronts Sosicles, thinking he’s Menaechmus and, like everyone else, thinks the latter must have gone mad when he denies all knowledge of him. In fact it occurs to Sosicles that if people keep accusing him of being mad, maybe there’s some advantage to actually behaving mad, so he starts ‘gaping and flinging himself about’ (p.133) and starts to rant and rave and claiming to hear the gods’ instructions telling him to beat this ‘bitch’ and the ‘old goat’ i.e. wife and father.

Terrified, she runs back inside the house leaving her father to grapple with Sosicles who pretends to be hearing instructions from Apollo himself telling him to run the old man over with a (non-existent) chariot and horses. They grapple till Sosicles falls to the floor. The father thinks he’s had a stroke so says he’d better hurry and fetch a doctor. Once he’s gone Sosicles gets up, dusts himself off, declares everyone here is mad, and decides he’d better get back to his boat while the coast is clear.

Misunderstanding 9 Father, doctor and Menaechmus

The father returns, out of breath, with a doctor who is just asking the symptoms of the patient when the real Menaechmus enters. Obviously he knows nothing of the encounter which just ended in which his identical twin feigned madness and fell to the floor. So he hasn’t a clue what the father is describing and the doctor is quizzing him about and answers all the latter’s impertinent questions rudely (‘Jupiter and all the gods blast you and your silly questions’, p.137). But he quickly becomes so angry, and answers so sarcastically, that he does himself appear mad, just like his twin had. So the doctor suggests Menaechmus is brought over to his house so he can supervise his treatment (hellebore seems to be the recommended drug). They exit to go and get some strong slaves to grab, bind and take Menaechmus away.

They both exit leaving Menaechmus alone. He sits down and a) wonders what on earth has possessed these two to accuse him of being mad and b) what the devil is going to happen now he’s locked out by both his wife and mistress.

Misunderstanding 10 Menaechmus and Messenio

Messenio is Sosicles’s slave. Last time he saw his master he told him to see the slaves and baggage settled at an inn, which he’s achieved. Now he re-enters and goes up to Erotium’s door because that’s the last time he saw his master, going in to have lunch with Erotium. But before he can knock on her door, he witnesses the father returning with four strong slaves. And then sees them set on Menaechmus, with a view to binding him and carrying him away.

Menaechmus calls for help and Messenio comes to his rescue and there’s quite a fight with our pair finally getting the better of the foursome who run away. Now, of course, Messenio not only expects Menaechmus to recognise him but asks for a big reward: will he set him free?

(I commented in my review of Captivi how almost all the plays include a slave who performs adroit services for his master and promptly asks to be freed, wondering if this was a reality of Roman life or just a hilarious staple of stage comedy.)

Menaechmus, of course, has now idea who Messenio is and thought he was a good samaritan coming to his aid. He tells him to his face he’s no idea who he is but, by all means, go free. Messenio takes this as meaning he has been liberated and cries tears of joy. He says he’ll go and get the purse of money, baggage and slaves from the inn and rushes off. Menaechmus refuses to be fazed by this but has no idea what he’s talking about.

He knocks on Erotium’s door with a view to trying to get the famous gown back and give it to his wife, completely unaware that Sosicles went off with it some time ago.

Misunderstanding 11

On the way to the inn Messenio has bumped into his real master, Sosicles. Now they enter arguing. Sosicles of course knows nothing about Messenio rescuing him from the four slaves and giving him his liberty. Oh no he bloody well didn’t, says Sosicles.

The catastrophe

In classical literary theory, the catastrophe is:

the final resolution in a poem or narrative plot, which unravels the intrigue and brings the piece to a close. (Wikipedia)

It’s at this moment, just as Sosicles is telling his slave Messenio he has no idea what he’s talking about, that Menaechmus walks out Erotium’s front door and comes face to face with his identical twin, Sosicles. The comedy is dramatised by being seen through the eyes of a third party, Messenio.

The two brothers are slow to recognise each other but it is Messenio’s comic intervention, claiming to be the slave of each in turn and getting them muddled up, which is played for a few more laughs.

In fact it is Messenio who takes Sosicles aside and points out that this other fellow may well be his long lost twin brother. He suggests they ask him a few more questions and Sosicles readily agrees. The play then mutates into a kind of courtroom drama with Messenio playing the role of interrogating counsel as he asks Menaechmus a series of questions which confirm that he is indeed the little boy from Syracuse who lost his father in a crowd, was kidnapped and adopted by a stranger who raised him here in Epidamnus.

At each answer Sosicles cries out in wonder with Messenio impatiently telling him to wait his turn to question the witness. Presumably a) the conceit of being a courtoom was meant to be funny as was b) the idea of a slave like Messenio impersonating a magistrate.

There’s still a smidgeon of doubt at which point Menaechmus asks Sosicles what their mother’s name was. Sosicles replies Teuximarcha. All doubts are removed, they both realise they are each other’s twin brother and embrace in tears.

The resolution

If you remember, Sosicles has been on a vast 6-year-long odyssey round the Mediterranean looking for his long-lost brother. Now that quest is at an end. Menaechmus resolves to accompany him back to the family home in Syracuse. He says he’ll quickly sell up all his property here then they can depart. Oh and Menaechmus asks Sosicles to give Messenio his freedom, as a favour to him, seeing as how he stoutly defended him in the battle of the four slaves.

1. It is very striking that the catastrophe did not involve either of the women, Menaechmus’s wife or mistress. Surely there was a world of comic potential, not to mention some kind of reconciliation with his wife, waiting to take place here. But it simply doesn’t happen. As if the women really are just pawns in the plot, who can be dispensed with as soon as they’re not needed; as if the only reconciliation which counts is male, among men, between the brothers, and to some extent Messenio.

2. The very last passage of the play is when Messenio cheekily asks the brothers if he can be their auctioneer, they say yes, and this gives Plautus the opportunity to show the cheeky slave impersonating an auctioneer, using his patter to quickly describe the contents and effects of Menaechmus’s house – everything must be sold off, including his wife (‘should there be any purchaser’) – before quickly bringing the play to an end with the traditional request for the audience’s applause.

Roman slavery

As in most of the other plays the thing which catches my attention most is the ubiquitous condition of slavery, of ordinary, everyday, commonplace slavery which everyone took for granted. Messenio is given a speech in which he describes how he’s made a conscious decision to be a good slave, which he defines as one who attends to his master’s welfare, plans his business and organises his affairs as effectively in his absence as in his presence. OK. Then goes on describe what life has in store for slaves who are worthless, idle or dishonest, namely:

floggings, chains, the treadmill, sweating, starving, freezing stiff. (p.138)

Is this an accurate description? It brings home the way a master would be friendly with, spend most of his life with, joke, laugh, cry, share his ups and downs with a person who he also order to do everything for him, run errands, fetch and carry, serve and please and who, if he (all the slaves in these plays are men) upsets, irritates his master or falls short, can be submitted to a staggering range of physical punishment and abuse.

And, as in so many of the plays, the top thing on Messenio’s mind was winning his freedom. As soon as he’s helped Menaechmus fight off the four slaves, he asks for his freedom. Is this what it was like? Did slaves think all the time of how to get free, and pester their masters for requests to be freed? Did they ever make such requests? Was there a recognised time or occasion which might merit it? Were there social conventions and forms of words?

Interestingly, Messenio says that, if he is freed, his one-time master becomes his patron. Is that how it worked. Was ‘freedom’ the exchange from one recognised form of hierarchical relationship for another? Did a freed slave remain within the orbit and indeed the service of his master/patron, only with freedom of action?

Messenio, after he thinks Menaechmus has freed him, hurries to say he still wants to take his orders and go home with him and carry on living with him. Was this meant to be funny because it indicated what a poor notion of freedom Messenio had? Or was it a commonplace situation, that freed slaves continued to live in their former master’s houses but on new terms? How was that managed by everyone concerned, not least the other slaves who remained in their unfree condition?


Credit

Page references are to the Penguin paperback edition of The Rope and Other Plays by Plautus, translated by E.F. Watling and published by Penguin in 1964.

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diane arbus: in the beginning @ Hayward Gallery

Diane Arbus was born in 1923 into a rich and cultured Jewish family in New York City. Her older brother, Howard, would go on to become the American poet laureate. She was sent to a series of private schools. In American terms, it would be difficult to be more privileged. But her father was rarely involved in her upbringing, absorbed in running the well-known Russek department store on Fifth Avenue, and her mother suffered from depression – so Diane and her siblings were raised by a succession of maids and governesses. It was a childhood of alienation and loneliness.

Indeed, Arbus suffered depressive episodes throughout her life and in 1971, at the age of 48, she took her own life while living at an artists community in New York City, swallowing barbiturates and slashing her wrists with a razor.

By that time she had established herself as one of the most influential, visionary and powerful photographers of the post-war period, and her reputation has grown steadily ever since.

The exhibition layout

This exhibition at the Hayward Gallery includes nearly 100 photographs taken during the first half (‘in the beginning’) of Arbus’s career, from 1956 to 1962, giving you a powerful sense of how she started out, of the incredible gift she began with, and how she developed and crafted it into something really distinctive.

All the photos are black and white, and consist of vintage prints from the Diane Arbus Archive at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. They are generally quite small, discreetly framed. The earlier ones are often dark and grainy in texture, shot on the hoof as she captures street scenes. By the early 60s this has changed a lot, the images gain clarity, the prints become larger, more lucid, the subjects more obviously posed and engaged, rather than caught on the fly.

But the first and most striking thing about the exhibition is how they’ve all been hung. The images are attached to the sides of square pillars which have arranged in a grid pattern in two big rooms.

The images are not in any particular chronological order, and so this ‘pillar layout’ allows you to wander past them in a number of directions: from front to back, or from side to side, diagonally, or to shimmy through the pillars in a random pattern.

Installation view of diane arbus: in the beginning at Hayward Gallery, 2019. Photo by Mark Blower

Installation view of diane arbus: in the beginning at Hayward Gallery, 2019. Photo by Mark Blower

If you saw them from above they would make a grid pattern and I suppose this could be said to echo the grid-like layout of the streets of her home town, Manhattan, the pillars representing city ‘blocks’.

Themes

The result of roaming freely through this forest of images is to make you notice recurring themes and subjects and thread them onto your own strings. Three large themes stick out:

  1. They’re all set in the city – urban scenes, streets and cars and shops, snack bars, inside people’s homes (generally shabby front rooms and cramped kitchens of cheap apartments) as well as various places of entertainment
  2. They’re all black and white, the earlier ones especially (i.e. mid-1950s) having a gritty, late-night film noir feel, almost like the crime scene photos and artless street scenes of someone like Weegee
  3. They’re almost all of people. Only three out of the hundred don’t feature people as their central focus, and in all three the absence of people is their main affect.

To be more specific, the images include the following recurring subjects:

  • night-time street scenes, people standing in the daytime street, taxi cabs, passersby
  • looking into shop windows, down a passage into a barber shop, an empty snack bar
  • scenes from films and shows broadcast on her television
  • circus performers
  • freaks: dwarves, giants, identical twins
  • a waxworks museum
  • Coney Island, famous for its entertainment and sideshows
  • the changing rooms of female impersonators
  • unnerving children
  • fathers holding babies
  • upper class women, in the street, in art galleries, in restaurants
Jack Dracula at a bar, New London, Connecticut (1961) Courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York © The Estate of Diane Arbus, LLC. All Rights Reserved

Jack Dracula at a bar, New London, Connecticut (1961) Courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York © The Estate of Diane Arbus, LLC. All Rights Reserved

Performers

The subjects most associated with Arbus are circus performers, midgets, giants, freaks and grotesques, transvestites and other ‘outsiders’ – so we have photos of ‘the human pin cushion’, of a circus strong man, a contortionist seen over the heads of a watching crowd. These might all come under the heading ‘Performers’, along with shots of:

  • Andy ‘Potato Chips’ Rotocheff doing his impression of Maurice Chevalier
  • the man who swallows razor blades
  • the Russian midget
  • The Jewish giant
  • the Mexican dwarf

Outsiders, people who perform exaggerate versions of themselves for entertainment.

Female impersonators

Another recurring subject is images of men who made a living as female impersonators in various states of undress in their backstage dressing rooms. I guess they have a combination of cheap glamour with pathos.

Female impersonator holding long gloves, Hempstead, Long Island (1959) Courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York © The Estate of Diane Arbus, LLC. All Rights Reserved

Female impersonator holding long gloves, Hempstead, Long Island (1959) Courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York © The Estate of Diane Arbus, LLC. All Rights Reserved

Circus acts, sideshow entertainers, female impersonators. They are all people who dress up and perform versions of themselves, who create their identities.

That summary might give the impression Arbus is attracted by the glamour of show business, or be a relative of the countless photographers of Hollywood film stars or Broadway actors. Far from it.

Poor and shabby

Because what all these subjects have in common is that they are poor.

Arbus was born into a wealthy family with nannies and maids, but emotionally stifled, repressed, alienated. The photos indicate that she went out looking for trouble, for worlds which represented the opposite of her privileged, Upper East Side, private school bubble. Slumming down among the proles in their shabby bars, pool halls and bizarre Victorian entertainments.

It’s in this spirit that there’s a strong thread of grainy, gritty shots of ugly working class people snogging, getting drunk and generally being lowlives at the poor man’s seaside resort, Coney Island in Brooklyn. As distant in terms of class, culture and manners, as it was possible to get from her privileged Manhattan background.

Note the grainy, foggy quality of the images. There’s a good cross-section of her photos in this New York Times article.

The Macabre

Alongside the depictions of living freaks and performers, there are several images of the dead. For example, a handful of shots from a New York waxworks museum, including a really gruesome one of an elaborately staged crime scene with fake blood spattered over the waxwork figures (Wax Museum Axe Murder).

Nearby is a shot of a corpse at a mortuary, shot from behind the head and showing the rib cage broken open to perform an autopsy.

The Surreal

As a grace note to these images of the grotesque and morbid is a handful of images of the genuinely surreal. Thus she made a trip to Disneyland where she saw a number of stage set ‘rocks’ parked on the trailers or trolleys which were used to move them around.

But this kind of deliberate and rather obvious surrealism was not her thing, not least because these are objects. Arbus is a people person: weird, disturbing and unsettling people, maybe, but it the strangeness of humanity is her subject, not the wide world of odd objects.

TV and film

Related to the idea of performance, and of the grotesque, is a whole series of black and white photos she took of films or TV shows. As far as I could tell a lot of these were shot directly off her TV while they were being broadcast, although some also seem to have been shot at the cinema, the camera pointing up at a distorted image on the screen.

Either way, these film still photos are clearly related to the themes discussed above in being hammy or kitsch. Thus we have:

  • Bela Lugosi playing Dracula
  • Man on Screen Being Choked,1958
  • a blonde woman on screen about to be kissed (and looking terrified)
  • a kiss for Baby Doll (from a movie)
  • a screaming woman with blood on her hands

As you can see, she’s chosen subjects which are cheap, melodramatic and pulpy. They should be funny except that something in Arbus’s framing, exposure and printing stops them being funny. Somehow they all suggest an imaginative world of genuine trauma, no matter how hokey its trappings.

Behind the cheap histrionics of Bela Lugosi or the woman screaming, behind the appalling bubblegum world of American culture, Arbus manages to identify something much deeper and genuinely disturbing.

How the weird infects the everyday

And this, I think, was the one big idea which gradually suggested itself as I circulated round the pillars and viewed and re-viewed this jungle of images: it dawned on me that Arbus took the same sensibility which had plumbed the depths of proley entertainment, which had faced the waxwork axe murders, which had tracked down ‘the human pin cushion’ and captured rough, deformed, chavvy working-class people about their entertainments in cheap funfairs and seedy pool halls, in smoke-filled cinemas, arguing and getting drunk and watching gimcrack performers, and…

… she then brought this feel for the weird and the strange and applied it to everyday life. She found herself able to detect the strange and unsettling quality of the sideshow contortionist in random passersby, the pathos of the fat lady in the passengers in a parked taxi cab, the mystery of the circus dwarf in a middle- aged woman on a bus, the glittery pathos of the transvestites in the face of a boy about to cross the road.

Somehow, what should be everyday people and banal scenes become charged, through her lens, with a tremendous sense of weirdness and strangeness.

Lady on a bus, New York City (1957) Courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York © The Estate of Diane Arbus, LLC. All Rights Reserved

Lady on a bus, New York City (1957) Courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York © The Estate of Diane Arbus, LLC. All Rights Reserved

It’s just a woman of a certain age in a fur coat on a bus, what’s so strange about that?

Well, in Diane Arbus’s hands, lots. Everything about this image has become strange and unsettling. It’s as if she had bottled the weird, edge-of-humanity vibe she had found down among the midnight sawdust and sweaty changing rooms of the circus midget and the transvestite performers, and then come back to the ordinary, everyday world of the bustling city and stealthily blown it onto passersby, transforming everyone she pointed her camera at into the stars of some obscure, unfathomable but deeply eerie storylines.

Through her lens they all become aliens caught in the act of… of doing something… of being something… strange and incommunicable.

Boy stepping off the curb, N.Y.C. 1957–58 © The Estate of Diane Arbus, LLC. All Rights Reserved

Boy stepping off the curb, N.Y.C. 1957–58 © The Estate of Diane Arbus, LLC. All Rights Reserved

A boy stepping off a kerb, what could be more mundane and boring, right? Except that in Arbus’s hands – through her eye – transmuted through her ability with camera and print – this kid seems to be a representative from another planet. Or to be hinting at strange unsuspected depths, of mysteries which can never be fathomed, right here, in this hectic, over-crowded city.

And so it is with a huge tranche of these images, even the most thoroughly ordinary – a girl with a pointy hood 1957, a woman with white gloves and a pocketbook 1956, a woman carrying a child in Central Park 1956 – all are super-charged with rare meaning and some kind of fraught but invisible symbolism, felt but not understood.

She was dead right when she said:

I do feel I have some slight corner on something about the quality of things. I mean it’s very subtle and a little embarrassing to me but I really believe there are things which nobody would see unless I photographed them.

Very subtle, but very very powerful.

A box of ten photographs

She didn’t stop photographing the weird and the uncanny. Well into the 60s she was photographing giants and midgets and twins. But as the 1950s turns into the 1960s, you can watch how she perfected her ability to capture the ominous quality of people doomed to be outsiders, losing the grainy look of the 50s and producing images which are much clearer, starker, all the more moving for their bluntness – and at the same time more and more subtly injecting that freak quality into deceptively ‘ordinary’ scenes of everyday life.

In a change to the white pillar layout, a room to the side of the main exhibition is devoted to one of her last works, a limited edition portfolio containing just ten of her photographs which she considered her best. Beautifully printed and presented, the limited edition boxes were priced at a thousand dollars apiece!

All ten of the photos she selected are on display here, and include several of her greatest hits, such as the identical twins.

Also included are A Jewish giant at home with his parents in the Bronx, N.Y. 1970, the Mexican dwarf, the King and Queen of a Senior Citizen dance, and the boater-wearing young man who is a supporter of the Vietnam war.

In just these ten shots you can see her major subjects recapitulated: circus freaks, grotesque chavs, transvestites (the guy with curlers in his hair), the everyday weirdness of the middle-aged nudist couple in their living room.

Posed weirdness against spontaneous unease

So far so obvious. But the image I liked most from the set was of the youngish couple lying on loungers in their big garden while junior plays with a paddling pool in the background.

The wall label tells us that her friend, the photographer Richard Avedon, bought two of the boxes, one for himself and one to give as a gift to the film director Mike Nichol.

Now Nichol has made a whole rack of excellent films, but that image of the couple on their loungers reminded me strongly of The Graduate from 1967, starring then unknown actor Dustin Hoffman, alongside Anne Bancroft and Katharine Ross. The Graduate is set in wealthy suburbia, is a story about people with nice houses with big gardens and swimming pools, and powerfully conveys the smothering politeness of American middle-class life which you only had to scratch the surface of to reveal a seething underworld of jealousies and animosities, lusts and betrayals.

It’s a very uncharacteristic photo for Arbus. Not urban, city streets, not at night. A suburban garden. Yet somehow (to pursue my thesis of her ability to find the weird amid the banal) the couple’s awkward pose and their strange indifference to their rummaging child, conveys – to me, at any rate – just as much un-ease, as much edginess, as a photo of, say, the spooky twins, or another one nearby, the kid with the hand grenade.

This is a famous photo. It has its very own Wikipedia article. After getting talking to him in the park and getting his parents permission to photograph him, she circled him getting to adopt different faces and poses, before selecting the one where he’s pulling the funniest face and looking, well, weirdest.

In the later photos, the exhibition gives us an increasing sense of the photographer arranging, engaging with and posing her subjects like this, a change from the more casual, fly-on-the-wall street photography of the 50s. They become more clearly framed and shot. It’s after the period covered by the show, from 1962 onwards, that she produces the images she’s most famous for.

But this, I think, is why I like the couple in the garden – it’s obviously been set up but it’s not a pose, it’s one among, presumably, a set of shots, and yet it captures very well the quality I’m on about – the more subtle end of her work, the capturing of dis-ease in the midst of the what ought to be the everyday.

Only connect

There’s another aspect to the Child with a toy hand grenade photo. The boy’s name was Colin Wood. Years later he gave an interview to the Washington Post about the experience of being photographed by Diane Arbus.

My parents had divorced and there was a general feeling of loneliness, a sense of being abandoned. I was just exploding. She saw that and it’s like… commiseration. She captured the loneliness of everyone. It’s all people who want to connect but don’t know how to connect. And I think that’s how she felt about herself. She felt damaged and she hoped that by wallowing in that feeling, through photography, she could transcend herself.

It would be easy to take this testimony and what we know about her unhappy childhood, to conclude that alienation and disconnect is the single dominating and defining quality of her photos.

It’s a powerful interpretation because it does, in fact, eloquently express the look in the eyes of all those transvestites, midgets and so on, the taxi drivers, the woman with white gloves and a pocketbook standing marooned on the sidewalk – people who seem somehow abandoned in the middle of their own lives.

But I tend to shy away from interpretations of books or art which focus solely on the psychology of the creator. Obviously it’s important, often decisive, but it is never enough. For me the most important thing is the work itself, the book and the words or the art and the images. The interest for me is in deciphering how it works, why it moves and transports us, in analysing the choice of subject, the maker’s skill with composition, framing, lighting, with contrasting effects of graininess or smoothness and so on.

It may be that the haunted loneliness in Diane Arbus’s personality sought, drew out and depicted the fellow loneliness she found in the people she photographed. But this psychological sympathy isn’t a sufficient explanation for her achievement. The same, the ability to coax secrets from subjects, might be said of social workers or therapists.

Any full explanation of the photographs’ impact must not lose sight of the fact that she was a photographer of genius. It is because she was a superb technician that her personal vision of the world didn’t die with her but is preserved in literally thousands of haunting photographs (some 6,000 at the most recent count).

The rise of weirdness

Looking at all these images of shabby circus performers and seedy changing rooms suddenly made me think of the cover art of The Basement Tapes by Bob Dylan. In the same year as Arbus shot the Identical twins – 1967 – Dylan retired to Woodstock where he and the Band made home tape recordings of scores of songs which were later released on the album titled the Basement Tapes.

The album cover (in fact created a decade later) is an effort to depict the surreal cast of characters who wander through the forty or so songs Dylan wrote that summer, a deliberate invocation of the circus world of bizarre and offbeat performers – a ballerina, a strong man in a leopard skin, a harem odalisque, a fire-eater, a midget, a fat lady.

It feels as if the rich vein of American weirdness which Arbus mined in her very personal photos from the late 1950s onwards was somehow destined to become part of the pop mainstream less than a decade later.

Cover of The Basement Tapes by Bob Dylan (1975)

Cover of The Basement Tapes by Bob Dylan (1975)

Arbus’s photos progress from a film noir and Naked City world of the late 1950s – distilled in her grainy shots of empty bars, barber shops, Coney island fairground lights and so on – to a much clearer, early-60s aesthetic which presents its subjects much more openly, candidly and vulnerably.

But I couldn’t help thinking that in both incarnations, she eerily anticipated what by the mid-1960s had become a very widespread interest in outsiders, freaks, the circus, transvestites and the rest of it.

In 1957 the word ‘freak’ meant someone suffering a deformity of body or mind, unacceptable to the average smartly-dressed, Middle American family. But just ten years later, the word ‘freak’ was being used to describe the pioneers of a new Zeitgeist, the trippy, zoned-out prophets of new ways of seeing and living. As soon as I hear the word ‘freak’ I think of the cartoon characters, The Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers, who first appeared in 1971, and the whole freak aesthetic went on to have a long dwindling afterlife in the 1970s.

From what I read Arbus herself was never anything like a hippy or flower child – but she was certainly way ahead of the curve in her obsession with freaks and outsiders. And in her ability to find the freakish and the uncanny in the everyday, she had nailed and defined a whole thread of Americana before its emergence into broader pop culture a few years later.

Cover of Strange Days by The Doors

Cover of Strange Days by The Doors (1967)

Not just illuminating ‘some slight corner on something about the quality of things’, Diane Arbus pioneered a whole way of seeing America, the world and modern urban life which shed light, not only on the obviously weird and bizarre (what she’s famous for), but also suffused countless banal and everyday scenes with wonderfully strange and ominous undertones.

What a great exhibition. What a brilliant photographer.


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