Right up my alley – writing and art, in the same place: A two and a half hour “salon” led by local playwright Mary Hall Surface in which we find a story in Jan Steen’s 1663 genre painting “The Dancing Couple.”
The group gathered last Saturday in gallery 46 of the National Gallery of Art here in DC. Once seated on folding stools in front of Steen’s painting, Mary Hall said that in “The Dancing Couple,” Steen has given us Shakespeare’s “Seven Ages of Man”—with lots of descriptive detail—the building blocks of a complex, layered story.
Jan Steen painted everyday life in the bustling new country of the Netherlands (recently liberated from Spain). He was a tavern-owner and put himself in many of his paintings. He’s seen here at the far left, grinning broadly and chucking a lady-friend under the chin. A fun-loving guy, he was fortunate to live in a time and place that celebrated artists. Wealthy and middle-class merchants could buy paintings for about the same price as a solid piece of furniture, so many families owned as many as ten to fifteen canvasses. As after-dinner entertainment, a host would invite his guests to contemplate one of his paintings. In the same way, we were invited simply to look at this picture, at first not making judgments, or interpreting the action.
To get started, we wrote declarative sentences about a character in the painting and what he or she is doing: “A young man dances a jig,” and “Three men talk on the other side of the fence.” Next, we “mapped” the sounds, smells, tastes, and sensory feel of the various objects in the painting. We wrote “spilled flowers,” “wine barrel,” “tobacco,” and “ham.”
Next, we wondered out loud what might be going on. My favorite, “who misses their youth and who wishes they were older.”
So how would we start the story? I wrote:
Bella had been married to Willem only fifteen minutes, but she couldn’t take her eyes off her lover, Johan, the inn’s proprietor, nor could he keep his off of her.
Next, she asked us to write the central question of our story. I had several: Will Bella’s new husband figure out he’s not the father of her baby? Will Bella give up her lover? Can Bella find happiness with a man who wears a cap with a cock’s feather on it?
In Exercise One, we were to tell the story of the couple from the point of view of a character in the story. Sticking with Bella, I wrote:
Bella could feel the new life growing within her. The child hadn’t moved yet, but she guessed it soon would. The sounds of the party tormented her: the clattering silverware, mugs banging on the long table, her cousin’s spoiled daughter’s cries, the maddening fiddle scraping and the tootling flute. Soon she would be forced to dance with Willem as if she were the happy bride everyone thought her to be. Her hand grazed Willem’s fingers. His touch repulsed her. Good lord, his fly was open! How would she bear being married to this sweating oaf? Just as she was about to allow herself to be drawn into a hellish jig, Johan caught her eye and raised his goblet. No, she would not give him up, no matter what happened.
Okay, not exactly deathless prose. More purple than deathless.
Exercise Two: Dialogue, in which we were to choose one of the other couples in the painting and imagine what they’re talking about. We were to refer to the central couple during the dialogue while trying to make the characters’ voices distinctive from one another.
I chose “Johan,” the leering fellow with the glass goblet on the right side of the painting and the woman in green with her back to the audience. I named her Cornelia.
Cornelia: Keep your eyes to yourself, husband of mine.
Johan: I’ll watch what I like! She’s a lively wench with a pretty bosom, nothing more to me, my chicken.
Cornelia: Everyone can see what kind of girl she is. And everyone can see the state she’s in.
Johan: She’s a fun-loving girl, unlike you.
Cornelia: And how much fun have you had with her, might I ask?
Johan: Why don’t you have a glass of wine, loosen your corset, and have a dance with me?
Cornelia: Dancing is the devil’s pastime!
Mary Hall then asked us to imagine what happened next and to write it in an omniscient voice.
Bella yanked her hand away from Willem’s. She stamped her elegantly shod foot. “I will not live with this boor!” The music stopped. The crowd quieted. Willem continued dancing for a few more beats until he stopped at last, a puzzled expression on his face. Indeed, it could be said—and was being said by everyone at the tavern—that Willem was not the sharpest tack in the box.
Bella, with a long look at Johan, the tavern’s proprietor, burst into tears, and fled.
Beet red in the face, Bella’s father signaled the musicians to play again, shouting, “Just a girlish tantrum! Wedding night jitters! Everyone, eat and drink and enjoy this festive occasion!” As the musicians began to play, if with a degree less enthusiasm, he leaned down to hiss in his wife’s ear, “Go after her, for God’s sake. Talk some sense into her or she will be ruined!”
Something about this painting induces melodrama. Perhaps it’s the symbolism!
Exercise Three: Symbolism in Steen’s art.
Mary Hall dashed my hunch that this was a wedding celebration. Although the scholarship is mixed, it likely depicts a country fair, maybe an engagement. But I was vindicated in another way. All the symbols in the painting point to—you guessed it: sex. Broken eggshells, the spilled pail of cut flowers, hmmmm? Less obvious, the empty barrel smack in the middle of the action refers to a proverb in vogue at the time, “A full barrel does not resound.” Steen saw Bella and Willem as empty, foolish people. Above the older couple on the left hangs a cage holding two doves. Another popular saying of the day was, “Instead of freedom, safety.” I guess Bella wasn’t paying attention to that either. Spectroscopic examination of the painting revealed that Steen added a chicken in a basket perched the head of the fellow between our dancing couple. In case you weren’t aware, the Dutch word for chicken and the Dutch word for sex sound much the same.
With that, Mary Hall wrapped it up. All in all, it was a fun experience. I’d recommend the series to everyone, not just writers, when it resumes in the fall. Past salons have focused on setting by examining a Hudson River School landscape and on character in a Picasso. The sessions fill up quickly, so if you’re interested, check out www.nga.gov/writing salon.
Mary Hall Surface’s play about Alexander Calder, “A Perfect Balance,” will be performed on November 5 – 6, 2016 in the Calder room at the NGA. Not to be missed!