Michelene Wandor is a playwright, poet, short story writer, critic and musician.
Born in 1940, the daughter of Russian Jewish emigrés, she studied English at the University of Cambridge, and gained Masters degrees in the Sociology of Literature and Music.
She was Poetry Editor of Time Out magazine from 1971-1982, and regularly reviews for a number of publications including the New Statesman, The Sunday Times, The Guardian and The Jewish Chronicle. She broadcasts and presents programmes on BBC Radio 3 and 4 and for BBC World Service, and has written award-winning radio dramas and dramatisations, including novels by Dostoyevsky, Jane Austen, George Eliot, H. G. Wells, Angus Wilson and Margaret Drabble. Her adaptation, The Belle of Amherst, won an International EMMY Award in 1987 and her dramatisations for radio of The Jungle Book and The Piano were both nominated for Writers' Guild Awards.
Her stage plays include Care and Control (in Strike While The Iron is Hot, 1980), about custody. Other plays include Mal de Mere (in Plays Nine, 1981); Whores d'Oeuvres (in 5 Plays, 1984); and Wanted (1988), about surrogacy. Her dramatisation of Eugene Sue's The Wandering Jew (1987) was the first drama by a British woman playwright to be staged on one of the National Theatre's main stages.
Michelene Wandor's poetry books include Gardens of Eden Revisited (1999), and Musica Transalpina (2005), a Poetry Book Society Recommendation. The Music of the Prophets (2006), a narrative poem commemorating the 350th anniversary of the Jews' return to England in 1655/6, was supported by a grant from the European Association of Jewish Culture.
Her short story collections include Guests in the Body (1986) and False Relations (2004). She has also co-written a novel with Sara Maitland, Arky Types (1987).
Her non-fiction books include two studies of contemporary theatre: Understudies (1981); and Look Back in Gender (1987). In 2008 she published the first history of creative writing in the UK, The Author is not Dead, Merely Somewhere Else: Creative Writing Reconceived, and also The Art of Writing Drama.
In 1972 she edited the first anthology of writings about the Women's Liberation Movement, The Body Politic, followed in 1990 by a book based on interviews - Once a Feminist.
Michelene Wandor has taught creative writing in prose fiction, poetry and drama for the past three decades, and was a Royal Literary Fund Fellow from 2004-2008.
She also performs Renaissance and Baroque music with her early music group, The Siena Ensemble. For these performances she has written original poetry with period music: Plain and Fancy (about Benvenuto Cellini); The Marriage of True Minds: Shakespeare and the (Jewish?) Dark Lady of the Sonnets (about Jews in early 17th-century England); and The Music of the Prophets (2006), mentioned above.
Michelene Wandor has re-told the Old Testament Book of Esther twice in her writings, and their significant differences show how her work has developed.
In ‘The Mask of Esther’, from Musica Transalpina (2005), the story of the Jewish heroine who became a Persian Queen, and saved the Jews from harm, takes the form of a musical libretto (the piece for two soloists and choirs was premiered at St. Albans Cathedral). Wandor mixes Biblical quotation with her own poetic language to make sing-able phrases: ‘In Shushan / the sun the moon and the stars / are made out of marzipan’. It tells a dramatic scenario of love and death - involving King Ahasuerus, his evil adviser Haman, Mordecai the faithful Jew and Esther the concubine-turned-Queen. This is given a richly metaphorical gloss, concluding ‘with celebrations / a fountain has become a river / a river has become a people / a woman has found her name again’. Going back to Gardens of Eden: Poems for Eve & Lilith (1984), there’s quite a different feminist emphasis. ‘Lilith re-tells Esther’s Story’ focuses first on Queen Vashti, discarded because she disobeyed the King, objecting to being ‘shown off like / a prize cow’. In Lilith’s rather impatient view, there is ‘something missing / from this story’, namely Esther’s own desires: it ‘doesn’t bother to say / whether Esther / actually liked / King A’.
Gardens of Eden - later expanded as Gardens of Eden Revisited (1999) - gives wittily irreverent voices to the Biblical figures of Eve and Lilith (respectively, the first female transgressor against male authority, and Adam’s unsubmissive first wife). These are pieces often playing with gender stereotypes, like the Jewish Mother: ‘you work your ribs to the bone/ setting up the human race/ and do you get any thanks?’ (‘Eve in the morning’). The original edition concludes with an overt political cabaret piece, ‘Eve at Greenham Common’. Wandor’s writing has therefore been informed both by her own Jewish cultural heritage and a long association with feminism – which she has called ‘crucial to my sense of purpose and audience’. She came to prominence on the wave of feminist writers in London from the 1970s with Spare Rib, becoming poetry and theatre editor for Time Out magazine. She collaborated with her friends, as in the poems of Touch Papers (1982) with Judith Kazantzis and Michele Roberts, and the novel Arky Types (1987), co-written with Sara Maitland. They are among the contributors to On Gender and Writing (1983), which she edited; her introduction recalling ‘that sense of ‘belonging’ which I used to find in acting and which I found in the heady euphoria of the early 1970s feminism … [that] reappears sometimes through writing’.
She also has an ongoing career as a dramatist, both of original stage plays or adaptations for fringe companies as well as the National Theatre. Her work has been particularly well suited to radio, most recently Tulips in Winter (broadcast in October 2008). As a critical thinker on drama, she has produced some key works of feminist sexual politics. Carry On, Understudies (1986) discusses the impact of feminism on new forms of popular theatre and Look Back in Gender (1987, revised edition 2001) is a wide-ranging look at the sexual politics of the best-known post-war plays in the British theatre. In the latter, Wandor’s purpose is polemical as well as historical, decrying the male-dominated theatre tradition but also the domination of directors over writers. The implicit radical optimism of the earlier edition, however, seems to have been compromised by the time she discusses the ‘outspoken wasteland of interpersonal relations’ in playwrights during the 1990s such as Sarah Kane and Mark Ravenhill. She concludes with an incisively praising account of Alan Ayckbourn’s ‘House and Garden’.
Introducing Musica Transalpina for the Poetry Book Society Bulletin (Spring 2006), Wandor acknowledges how her enthusiasm for the art and music of late Renaissance Italy has come to be ‘translated’ into her poetry: ‘music and performance cross over into words, influence and transform each other’. This is reflected, for example, in a short poem about playing an instrument: ‘while the inner ear congratulates the outer / and the hard shine slinks / as the sound slides shrugging / over your dark gleaming shoulders’ (‘Viola da Gamba’). Some of the longer pieces, as with ‘The Mask of Esther’, have been performed with appropriate music. In the case of the intriguing closing work, ‘Emilia’s Poem or The Marriage of True Minds or Have you heard the one about the Dark (Jewish?) Lady of the Sonnets?’, this is the music of the time of Shakespeare. The poem is both documentary in its history of the Jews in London, and playful in its romantic entwining of Emilia’s story as the ‘secret mistress’ of the national bard. Emilia, the daughter of an Italian Jew, is ‘the first woman in England to publish a long devotional poem’, in which she ‘unites Eve with Mary Magdalene / With the God of the Old Testament / And the Christ of the new’.
The theme of reconciliation between peoples and faiths is expanded upon in The Music of the Prophets (2006), commissioned to mark the 350th anniversary of the official return of the Jews to England. This is a dramatic poem, again performed by Wandor’s own group, with music by Henry Purcell and others. It actually became part of her recent radio play Tulips in Winter, featuring the philosopher Spinoza and his family, the painter Rembrandt - and the working out of the agreement for the resettlement of the Jews in Cromwell’s England. Of course, as both the play and poem elaborate, despite persecution and their expulsion in 1290, Jews had had a clandestine presence in London ever since, and remain vital to international trade. ‘A Jew is a bird of passage’, it observes, ‘an invisible feather on the breath of sanctuary’.
Rembrandt’s elegant picture of the rabbi Menasseh ben Israel, negotiator for the Dutch Jews, contrasts with the ‘warts and all’ portrait of Cromwell. They ‘share a dream’ of ‘a Messiah and a Second Coming’, and sit together in the coffee house, ‘where all but women can meet’. Their meeting amusingly travesties lines from Marvell’s poem ‘To his Coy Mistress’: ‘Had we but world enough and time / this leisure, Cromwell, were no crime’. And then some from Karl Marx, a Jew who much later found sanctuary in London: ‘theologians may explain the world / our job is to change it’. At the end of a Whitehall Conference there are seven new government commandments for the Jews but also, crucially, ‘informal permission’ to worship. The final section fast-forwards to a London where ‘the Jews are secret no more’ and an Amsterdam where you can drink coffee ‘in the Rembrandt Corner Café’. As Judith Kazantzis has observed, Michelene Wandor’s work ‘has a depth of historical and cultural understanding unusual in contemporary British poetry’.
Dr Jules Smith, 2008