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The final, final part of TwtS

November 7, 2016

The problem with acronyms is that my brain adds letters to make them into words and having innocently shortened Tea with the Sphinx to ‘Twts’ every time I type that my brain automatically adds an ‘i’ and I go in for infantile sniggering – don’t judge me it’s been half term here in my corner of Lancashire and I’m taking whatever humour/coffee/saturated fats and sugar I can find. Anyhow, moving swiftly on  let’s get back to the serious business of Tea with the Sphinx and my ‘no, really, this is truly the last final installment even if it has all gone a bit Douglas Adams over here’.

The constructions of Cleopatra alluded to by Mara constituted the final session. Beginning with Chloe Owen’s paper looking primarily at Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra. Chloe discussed the overt sexuality of Cleopatra in paintings

Copyright Chloe Owen, image from

Copyright Chloe Owen, image from

and how in the arts Egypt is portrayed as feminine, fluid representing fertility and death and/or the menstrual cycle, whereas Rome was masculine, an invading force. Cleopatra, however, mixes both masculine and feminine, gender here is blurred and this happened with Egypt itself in the play as the scenes move between Rome and Egypt with comparisons of the two countries. It is Cleopatra’s gender which is important, not her race. Looking at two recent stagings of the play, with the Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton film version in mind, Chloe compared the Egypt of The Globe’s version – sumptuous, exotic, erotic and othered – to the RSC’s Egypt – black, erotic, othered but also invaded. Both versions reference the film either through Cleopatra’s appearance or the way in which Egypt takes over and dominates the stage, infiltrating the Roman scenes and upsetting ideas of gender. As Chloe illustrated, Egypt is always feminine, always exotic but can be appropriated and transformed by actors and producers.

Bridget Sandhoff talked next about Cleopatra in art and cinema. Cleopatra is a strong individual and connected with strong men, but her image is malleable and has been subjected to mythology which affects how her legacy, particularly her visual legacy, has been perceived.

Copyright Bridget Sandhoff, image

Copyright Bridget Sandhoff, image

The Cleopatra we have is largely Octavian’s version where Cleo is portrayed as responsible for Mark Antony’s fall, she is the temptress seducing him from his duty with her sexual charm. In this Western version Egypt is lazy, luxurious, soft, Cleopatra is promiscuous, taking on male gender in a way that will lead to ruin, the Egyptian version has Cleopatra as educated, civilised, embodying motherhood as the living Isis, but it is the Roman view that has prevailed. Despite the work of artists such as Edmonia Lewis, whose Cleopatra stands in for African Americans and in reaction to colonialism and racism displays honour, virtue, dignity and intelligence, it is Octavian’s Cleo who dominates the arts including the Burton and Taylor film and HBO/BBC’s Rome mini-series.

The final paper was presented by Siv Jansson and focussed on the Taylor and Burton film. This film is important in so many ways, Siv began by detailing the excess, everything about the film, the sets, the costumes, the rewrites and the stars – on and off screen – is huge, over the top, excessive.

The film nearly bankrupted the studio, 20th Century Fox, but as a spectacle demonstrating the power of cinema over TV it worked magnificently. And, the excess echoes the pre-conceived image of Ancient Egypt, wealth, gold, grandeur, just as the Cleopatra myth is echoed by Elizabeth Taylor’s life, the film was overshadowed by Burton and Taylor’s affair and they became interchangeable with their on-screen characters and the conspicuous consumption and excess of the film – and construction of Ancient Egypt – was echoed in Burton and Taylor’s off-screen lives. The story is so well-known because this is the point at which celebrification began, the paparazzi revealed the Taylor Burton affair and everything they subsequently did was seen as newsworthy – and again their reaction to the scandal that followed echoed their on-screen roles, where Liz Taylor was unmoved by the publicity, Burton was more concerned at the potential negative effect, Taylor was a huge star at this point, Burton was on his way up – once more paralleling the actual lives of Cleopatra and Mark Antony. Siv pointed out that although this film has had the same impact on film history as Ancient Egypt has had on cultural history, it is noticeably rooted in its own time – Taylor’s Cleopatra is at her strongest, most intelligent, most politically astute, in the scenes with Caesar, with Mark Antony all that strength evaporates.

David Gange then had the unenviable task of closing the conference of trying to pull together all the papers and questions and comments of a packed two days. I appear to have very little in the way of notes from this. Given I was giddy with the joy of it all, filled to the brim with information and images, I’m amazed I noted down anything he said, but I can tell you he said it was an excellent conference, how difficult it was to identify the speaker’s discipline from their paper and how wonderful this was indicating it had been a truly inter-disciplinary conference. I’m sure he said more and far more eloquently than I have, and I am indebted to him for the phrase ‘serious academic syndrome’, but basically I think he said it was brilliant and Ellie and Nichola had done a fantastic job – both of which statements I completely agree with. I can’t think of another conference that I enjoyed anywhere near as much – let’s hope they do another one when they’ve recovered from this and look out for the forthcoming publication.

Right, ok, with that conference report out of the way I guess I’d better start writing up the HARN conference. Maybe we should have a change of scene first? A little break from conferences? Or maybe I should just stop being so lazy and get a wriggle on? Who knows which way it will go?


3 Comments leave one →
  1. Martyn permalink
    November 7, 2016 11:24 am

    But is there a ‘Ken Richard Burton Mark Antony’ doll? No, I don’t want one, I just want to know. Really.

    • harngroup permalink*
      November 7, 2016 4:21 pm

      I’m not sure I believe you, think what it’d add to your Nativity Scene. Sadly I can’t find any trace of a Richard Burton Ken, is there a Roman General Action Man? We’re not very good on Action Man in this wing of HARN towers, we’re more about the Lego, but there’s no Lego Cleopatra as I know. I will now go and check that.


  1. Cfp (Another Cup of) Tea with the Sphinx | HARN Weblog

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