Bob Dylan And Harold Pinter (Part IV): Intertextuality

by Larry Fyffe

‘The Madhouse On Castle Street’ is a Post-Pinter TV play in that it updates the British playwright’s dark vision of modern day society for younger viewers. The taped play includes a lodger in a cheap boarding house, Walter Tompkins,  who isolates himself from the rest of society, and is slowly starving to death.

Like Stanley Webber in Pinter’s play, ‘The Birthday Party’, he’s alienated, incapable of revealing his true feelings because language is based on the power structure culturally encoded from the past.

There’s Martha, Walter’s sister; Lennie, the Apollonian student, who tries to figure out what is going on; Bobby the Dionysian hobo from America who plays the guitar and intersperses songs that comment on the primeval aspects of humankind; plus a reverend and a couple of strange visitors. A year later, the role of the singer is greatly expanded in a taped Canadian TV programme with the setting being in an isolated log cabin; Michael Zenon writes at a table; he and the other men in the cabin act as though they are in a silent movie, but without exhibiting any exaggerated gestures.

The myth of the the Promised Land regained in the freedom of the Old West of the American frontier is put on rest in these TV productions –  a myth perpetuated for one  by the “singing cowboy” of modern times, with no Leda-seducing swan resulting in the birth of Helen of Troy; no ‘Song Of Solomon’; there’s a range, however:

Home, home on the range ....
How often at night when the heavens are bright
WIth the light from the glittering stars
Have I stood there amazed, and asked as I gazed
If their glory exceeds that of ours
(Gene Autry: Home, Home On The Range)

It’s a revision of the original intertextual song below (published first as a poem by Dr. Higley) :

Oh give me the land where the bright diamond sand
Throws its light from the glittering stream
Where glideth along the graceful white swan
Like a maid in her heavenly dream ....
How often at night, when the heavens were bright
With the light from the twinkling stars
Have I stood here amazed, and asked as I gazed
If their glory exceeds that of ours
(Tom Roush: My Western Home ~ B. Higley/D. Kelley)

The author of ‘The Madhouse House On Castle Street’ is no happily singing cowboy out on the range – that’s for sure:

Tenderly William kissed his wife
Then he opened her head with a butcher knife
And the swan on the river went gliding by
The swan on the river went gliding by
Lady Margaret's pillow is wet with tears
No body's been on it in twenty years
(Bob Dylan: The Ballad Of The Gliding Swan ~ Jones/Dylan)

Not unlike the imagery in the song sung by the chorus of Titan female water nymphs in the ancient Greek play ‘Prometheus Bound’. Titan Prometheus shows compassion for mortal humans stealing fire and providing tools for them; thereby undermining Zeus’ authority:

I moun for thee, Prometheus, ministered and brought low
Watering my virgin cheeks with these sad drops that flow
From sorrow's rainy fount, to fill soft-lidded eyes

Bob Dylan goes home to America, the land of the eagle, taking the idea of intextuality with him. Perhaps Prince Philip mentioned  in one if his later song refers ironically to director Philip Saville as a Judas figure – in real life, he’s an unfaithful husband:

I went down where the vultures feed
I would go deeper, but there wasn't any need
Heard the tongues of angels and the tongues of men
Wasn't any differenceto me ....
Met Prince Philip at the home of the blues
Said he'd give me information if his name wasn't used
Said he wanted money upfront, said he was abused
By dignity
(Bob Dylan: Dignity)

Despite his generosity, the BBC burns Philip’s tapes some years after ‘The Mad House On Castle Street’ is broadcast; it’s a murder most foul.

In Greek mythology, Prometheus refuses to tell Zeus who’s going to replace him as the chief god. The guide to the Underworld, Mercury, symbolized by the vulture (as Venus is by the swan) warns the Titan that he’ll be bound forever, and his liver eaten by an eagle unless some human sacrifices himself instead:

Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels
And have not charity
I am become as sounding brass, or a tinkling cymbal
(I Corinthians 13:1)

12 years of Untold Dylan

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