Sunday 13 February 2011

J.R.R. Tolkien, The Rivals and Mrs Malaprop

This weeks blog posting came about from a visit last night to London's The Haymarket Theatre to see Penelope Keith (Good Neighbors) and Peter Bowles (To the Manor Born, Rumpole of the Bailey) in Peter Halls excellent production of Richard Brinsley Sheridan's first comedy The Rivals (1775)

I had planned for this weeks posting to be more about early Tolkien linguistics but then as I sat in the theatre I realised that as much as I tried to put Tolkienan things aside for one night - I had actually come back around to Tolkien - for Tolkien himself has been involved with a production of Sheridan's The Rivals and in his youth had played not the dashing Captain Jack Absolute or his father Sir Anthony Absolute - but indeed Tolkien played the "she wolf" Mrs Malaprop - she who "calls her words so ingeniously misapplied, without being mispronounced" as Julia Melville the cousin of our heroine Lydia Languish says of her in the play. It seems natural that Tolkien with his love for language would savour the opportunity to play a character who uses language in shall we say interesting ways - so what is the evidence of Tolkien taking to the stage to do this?

According to Christina Scull and Wayne G Hammond's J R R Tolkien Companion and Guide in Volume Two The Readers Guide in the section on Tolkien's involvement in pre World War One school days with "The Tea Club Barrovian Society"* -

"In autumn term 1911 Gilson (Robert Quilter Gilson) was Secretary of the Musical and Dramatic Society and planned a performance of The Rivals by Sheridan to be staged at the end of the term. Tolkien, by then at Oxford, was lured back to play Mrs Malaprop, while Wiseman (Christopher) played Sir Anthony Absolute, Gilson Captain Absolute and T.K Barnsley Bob Acres." (p. 999)

Gilson's motivation for producing The Rivals seems to have come a year earlier when according to Scull and Hammond's Tolkien Chronology for December 1910 RQ Gilson during a dinner of the King Edward's School Music and Dramatic Society recited the abduction speech from Shakespeare's Richard II and two scenes from Sheridan's The Rivals (p. 22).

The production of The Rivals was set for Autumn 2011. In Hammond and Scull there is a note that "after the dress rehearsal, the friends, still in costume, marched up Coronation Street in Birmingham to have tea in Barrow's stores (p.999). One could imagine Tolkien decked out as Mrs Malaprop walking up the high street!!

The T.C.B.S performance of The Rivals was given on 21 December 1911 at King Edwards School Birmingham. According to the King Edwards School Chronicle quoted in Scull and Hammond's Tolkien Chronology

"the performance was a thorough success both artistically and financially (ed note - in my line of work both items very welcome!) J R R Tolkien's Mrs Malaprop was a real creation, excellent in every way and not least so in make-up...." (p. 31)

(Now there is a oh I wish I could get in the TARDIS and go back in time moment to see the soon to be Oxford don in drag playing Mrs. Malaprop!!)

It is quite interesting to think that Tolkien a future philologist and creator of languages would play a character whose very name and action would be responsible for a new word in our language

"The word malapropos is an adjective or adverb meaning "inappropriate" or "inappropriately", derived from the French phrase mal à propos (literally "ill-suited")।[1] The earliest English usage of the word cited in the Oxford English Dictionary is from 1630. Malaprop used in the linguistic sense was first used by Lord Byron in 1814 according to the OED. The terms malapropism and the earlier variant malaprop come from Richard Brinsley Sheridan's 1775 play The Rivals, and in particular the character Mrs. Malaprop. Sheridan presumably named his character Mrs. Malaprop, who frequently misspoke (to great comic effect), in joking reference to the word.A malapropism (also called a Dogberryism or acyrologia) is the substitution of a word for a word with a similar sound, in which the resulting phrase makes no sense but often creates a comic effect. It is not the same as an eggcorn, which is a similar substitution in which the new phrase makes sense on some level. Occasionally a phrase, rather than a single word, replaces the original word, for example Stan Laurel said "What a terrible cat's after me!" (i.e., catastrophe) in Any Old Port" (Wikipedia entry on Malaproprisms)

Some of the best of Mrs Malaprop's utterances are -

"...promise to forget this fellow - to illiterate him, I say, quite from your memory." (i.e. obliterate; Act I Scene II Line 178)
"...she might reprehend the true meaning of what she is saying." (i.e. comprehend; Act I Scene II Line 258)
"...she's as headstrong as an allegory on the banks of Nile." (i.e. alligator; Act III Scene III Line 195)
"Sure, if I reprehend any thing in this world it is the use of my oracular tongue, and a nice derangement of epitaphs!" (i.e. apprehend, vernacular, arrangement, epithets). (Sheridan, The Rivals)

One could just hear Tolkien declaring this in the play!!

In a similar way much later on his life Tolkien would construct a word that has now come into our language and the OED; namely "Hobbit"

But if Mrs Malaprop substituted "a word for a word with a similar sound in which the resulting phrase makes no sense but creates comic effect" what the later Tolkien did in developing his languages (not all together for comic effect) was use similar sounds to create a vast tapestry of language structure and from it developed the key languages of his legendarium.

It would be interesting to go through the legendarium and look for examples of malapropisms they must be there - the only related one I can think of right now is something I heard someone once say about Tolkien's works - "Middle Earth is Hobbit forming" (how true).

Welcome more Tolkienian malapropisms and thoughts!!

*it is sobering to think that many of these TCBS friends of Tolkien would soon perish on the battle fields of World War One as masterfully told in the best book on this subject John Garth's Tolkien and the Great War - soon to be in paperback and audio book.

Works Cited

Scull and Hammond The J.R.R Tolkien Companion and Guide (2 cols) HarperCollins:London 2006

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