Gothic elegies – Penny Dreadful’s OST and lost females of power

The piece  ‘Joan Clayton’ (below) from the soundtrack to the TV Series Penny Dreadful contains an elegiac movement in the middle of Abel Korzeniowski’s composition (which commences around 1:52) commemorating the death of the character of the old witch Joan Clayton, whose powerful turn in the show was always told in flashback.  The movement also featured in a later episode, this time involving the culmination of a trap being sprung which results in one of the core group of characters being forced to kill another.

These are grave, dark motifs of what was a thoroughly gothic show, but what is so incredible about this movement, its self contained melodic intensity, is that it also invokes a feeling and spirit that is indelibly beautiful, moving and has the unwrapping of a refrain that cuts as an experience through the listening.

It summons at once, in being such a stand-out musical form, that this is a moment out of the ordinary, defined in intensive terms to disrupt and not only that, but that the character and dimension and ‘reality’ of a being are involved, a being whose adventure in the story has ended.  Its at the heart of the show’s emotion and a major statement of its story that it should be crystalised sonically around the death of a character, but also that the death of the character in this instance is part of a deeper tide of the world Penny Dreadful is giving us (its relation to women and magicality, which we’ll come to).

The elegy is dominated by its refrain and how it builds and returns, never more evident than when the cymbal crashes (at 2:49) taking us through to the fully reverberant final passage after it has slowly built, like a reminder that thresholds are there, marked shifts and trans-shifts in composition, the resonance and power in the moment of composition playing out in suddenly intensified ways.  Perhaps it can also be said that possibilities exist likewise for ourselves and how we are composed, and likewise in turn, for the intensifications of being and feeling of those things we love and are in love with.

This though is of course a singing of loss, an elegy – a recurrent voice in our lives, whether heard knowingly or not, but surely rarely at this precise pitch of beauty in sonic form.  The movement here is bookended with the necessary dramatic motifs of a kind of ‘haunted landscape of the desolate’ that Penny Dreadful called upon as a tonal marker.  Often however, the show featured committed performances that made one aware these are characters who are fundamentally fighting for love and for life, against a wave of gothic darkness.  Alongside some fine conjurings of the imagintion, this piece for me emerged as a gem from a sometimes profoundly moving series.

Its bleak out here for Miss Ives, when you are a beautiful, powerful woman.

Although ultimately, I feel I understood it that the story shows the closing down of spaces it had initially opened with promise.  It recurrently drew upon a reality of witches for example and the exceptional performance of Eva Green was mind boggling.  Her character Miss Ives, struggling with grace throughout a world of dark forces that are always just more than she and her intrepid group can vanquish.  Green repeatedly showed us depths of intensity and poise in moments of utterly bleak fragility and yet hers also is a witchly sacrifice and in a way which ultimately regresses the brief (and rare) view of a line of flight for a group of anomalous people.  In fact, the series placed women and specifically Miss Ives as key catalysts, foregrounding the female while ultimately succumbing to the gothic in formulation and finality.

As such, we do not get a magical becoming-female line of flight except in gaps.  Miss Ives’ time with the witch Joan Clayton is powerful, although ultimately the response from the world to this older, experienced witch is that Joan be despatched by an horrendous aristocrat whose land she borders and for whom her disrespect is simply too much for his fragile ego-authority to bear.

Its worth being reminded that Miss Ives is part of a formidable and semi-magical group that has assembled to ward off gothic powers of unearthly and nefarious foes, but the group is only ever reactive in its defensive or offensive steps.  They are always embroiled (perhaps as story dictates) but it serves to contain the fact that magic abounds the world of this story, (or science-magicalism) and yet with the horror of aperture, the line of flight can only ever resemble the possibility of some peaceful form of existence, unassailed.

As such, its view is only ever toward the gothic, a fending off, not toward any counterpart the gothic might have.  When in fact, for the presence of such magicality, further possibilities must ensue as to reality, had we the depth of world, presence and being in ourselves perhaps to realise these things.

Miss Ives (Eva Green) and John Clare (Frankenstein’s creation played by Rory Kinnear)

THERE was a time when meadow, grove, and stream,
The earth, and every common sight,
To me did seem
Apparell’d in celestial light,
The glory and the freshness of a dream.
It is not now as it hath been of yore;—
Turn wheresoe’er I may,
By night or day,
The things which I have seen I now can see no more. (ln. 1-9)

But there’s a tree, of many, one,
A single field which I have look’d upon,
Both of them speak of something that is gone:
The pansy at my feet
Doth the same tale repeat:
Whither is fled the visionary gleam?
Where is it now, the glory and the dream? (ln. 52-58)

Perhaps nothing sums this up more than the final reading (of Wordsworth), in fact the final words of the series in the episode ‘blessed dark.’  Read by the superb Rory Kinnear and in part to resonate with the end of the Miss Ives character, with her has passed a magic of the world, as if with her demise – we see the demise of the magic of witches and the magic of human beings.  It seems that the show’s runner John Logan is idenitifying with the death of the witch, the largest shift of the gothic in excision of magicality from what is left of our world.

Wordsworth goes on to recount of the “strength in what remains behind” but his statements of loss are hardly requisite with what follows.

It remains only to find in the gleaming of the turned sadness, a real energy of what was alive and shining there for Wordsworth in the first place – passed what changed the angle of existence and such that what was always there remains and in that sense, can again be animated.  It is in human beings that newly conformed, antecedent ministrations of existence rob the form of the moment which has always bordered horizons of the beyond.  Directions and worlds of and for explorers (most certainly beyond the voice of a drowner’s gothic) must now explore and continue to see of Wordsworth’s celestial light, albeit in the form of unknown realisations, untethered once again in the depth of the moment, where what pertained to know no more, knows once more and gives up its spiral loves, a secret tongue of being.

 *                       *                        *