THIS ESSAY HAS BEEN SPLIT IN TWO FOR EASIER DOWNLOADING. PART
TWO IS HERE
Freedom Of Speech first appeared in Columbus' Blindness and Other Essays, edited
by Cassandra Pybus, published by University of Queensland Press,
1994; ISBN 0-7022-2745-5
The Piano Copyright © Carmel Bird 1996.
All rights reserved
One of my aunts was born with no fingers on her right hand. She
used to play the piano. My mother and all my aunts and all their
friends used to play the piano. Nobody was brilliant at it; but
they all did it. Many (but not all) girls of my generation learned
to play too. I was so possessive of our piano that I carved my
name into the back of it. Teaching girls to play the piano is
less common now, not such a matter of routine. Times have changed.
But then, with your hands and feet you gradually got control of this big
apparatus, and when it did your will, you could make it sing.
Then it would express your feelings. Playing my piano gave me
not only some power, but some voice. Power and voice were hard
for girls to come by, and so the piano was a most treasured thing.
If you had a piano to play and a horse to ride, you were almost
Pianos have always attracted and fascinated me, and I have come
to associate them with women and diaries and emotion, with power
and sexuality. The diary was the safe private place in which women
of last century could express their feelings and thoughts in words;
the piano was private and subversive, yet at the same time it
was safely public. Your audience pays attention as you tease the
tunes from the strings. The strings are struck by hammers which
get their signal from the keys which are struck by you. The glorious
power in the fingers! (And imagine that clever aunt who could
do it without fingers, too.)
The piano is made from beautiful wood, carved, with brass or silver
candlesticks; it might have red silk behind fretwork; it might
have images of flowers or birds inlaid in the surface of the case.
It is a sweet, romantic, beloved thing. Like a big smile, the
keys (made, once upon a time, from the tusks of elephants) lie
before you, silent, waiting for you to strike. The picture of
a girl at her piano is a charming picture -- the girl is safe
behind closed doors, attached to the furniture, making pretty
sounds. She feels good because she has the power to make music;
her guardians feel good because she seems, while charming them,
to be still within their control. A girl who practises the piano
is not out in the woods with boys.
But what if you disrupt this picture of closeted innocence and
virginity. What if you begin to see the girl as a being in search
of some power; and you see the piano as her very centre of expression.
Detach her from her piano and look with her inner eyes at that
piano. The smiling mouth of the keyboard might be vaginal, mightn't
it? Is the girl seated before a huge carved piece of female genitalia?
Jane Campion recently made a film in which a mute Victorian woman,
Ada, used her piano in a most dramatic way to speak for her, to
give her some power to move beyond the confines of her closed
and stifling world. One narrative of this film The Piano is an eerie and terrible dreamscape in which the piano is vaginal,
and is also a separate piece of property to be transported and
bartered; another narrative is that of the story of Ada's life.
If you are pulled deep enough into the dream narrative, you are
likely to overlook the oddities and inconsistencies in Ada's life;
but if you can resist the power of the dream, you might be troubled
by the things that appear to pass for story, but which don't add
up. Of course the dream and the life overlap and interweave --
so that it is not always possible to tease the two apart.
The piano itself straddles both narratives, but in the early scenes
on the beach, its reference is surreal, and so it is first located
in the dream in the mind of the viewer. But I have to go back
before I even entered the cinema, for such is the nature of modern film
that the viewer carries first the images from the publicity. First of all I heard that Jane Campion, whose work I admire,
had made a film called The Piano. A blunt noun of a title, summoning at once strong and deep emotion
and meaning for me. (Abstract titles such as Indecent Proposal, Gross Misconduct, Basic Instinct blur in my mind and I can't remember them, but The Piano was charged and unforgettable from the beginning.) Next I saw
a picture of a small flat piano with four heavy carved legs stranded
on an empty beach. So strange, so compelling. I was hooked, enchanted.
I don't know now whether this still ever appeared in the film,
but it was my leading image. Then I saw one of the pictures of
the faces of Ada and her 10 year-old daughter Flora in their severe
black dresses and bonnets. The eyes gaze each at different angles,
filled with knowledge, power, and filled, above all, with will. Something dark and terrible appears to be going on. I began
to see pictures of the crated piano accompanied by a bandaged
piano stool and a bandaged sewing table. Something has been wounded.
Then pictures of Ada in full doll-like black Victorian regalia.
She reminded me of the ghost of Miss Jessel in The Innocents. Something spooky here.
So I entered the dream before the film came to the cinema.
One of life's treats is to read essays by Helen Garner. The only
piece I read about The Piano before I saw the film was written by Helen Garner for The Independent Monthly. She was crazy about The Piano. Many people were. Many other people were very critical indeed.
I wondered why the reactions were so extreme.
I was gripped by the film and the phenomenon of the film. Hence
this essay. What I saw was the disjunction between the fabulously
powerful dreamscape and the lack of continuity, of credibility
in the story of Ada's life. I want to examine this disjunction.
I don't necessarily always want everything neatly explained, but
in the case of The Piano I (willing to be drawn along by the surreal and seduced by the
images and symbols) saw questions posed but never answered, and
I found myself hampered by the gaps.
By the time of writing this, I have read and heard many responses
to the film. I have also read the script which was published --
more of an artifact than a straight script -- six weeks after
the film was released here.
The story is set in 1847, a date chosen by Jane Campion because
that is when Wuthering Heights was published. There are resonances of the Bronte novel in the
film. The mute Ada (single mother) is sold by her Scots father
to Stewart in New Zealand. She takes with her her two means of
communication -- her daughter and her piano. In the wilds of New
Zealand she finds Stewart unfeeling ?he trades her piano with
Baines for some land. She then buys back the piano by playing
for Baines, and by removing her clothing bit by bit. Stewart loses
Ada to Baines, and in his rage he attacks the piano with an axe
and chops off Ada's index finger. Ada and Baines set off by boat
to live elsewhere, and Ada orders the piano to be thrown overboard.
It drowns and she nearly drowns with it, but frees herself in
time and begins a new life with Baines. She starts to learn to
talk, and she teaches music using a silver index finger and a
Ada stopped talking when she was six. I wonder why. She doesn't
know, herself. The young actor, Anna Paquin, who plays Flora comments:
'Some of the time I think Ada's a bit weird. Like, what happened
to her that she doesn't speak? She hasn't spoken since she was
six years old!' I think the question of why Ada is mute is a critical
one. I thought throughout the film that an answer was going to
become apparent, but it never did. The question hung in my consciousness
all the time, and it still does. After all, the whole business of the piano and its fantastic role in the lives of the characters
depends on the fact that Ada stopped speaking when she was six.
Did her mother die then? Did some other dreadful event take place?
The story of the piano was set in motion when Ada went mute. Why,
why, why did Ada do that? The film does not have the quality of
a fairy tale in which strange things can be accepted without motive,
rhyme or reason. In dream we accept; but the fact of the silence
does not have the nature of a dream. It is such an odd and dramatic
piece of behaviour, and I think a story-teller can't be allowed
to shrug it off. I find it very telling that Anna Paquin chose
to comment on it. One sentence of explanation could have laid
the problem to rest. Why didn't Jane Campion give us that sentence?
I have moved pianos across the city. These pianos were wrapped
in blankets like Spanish horses at a bullfight, and moved around
by men whose job it is to shift pianos. But the pianos always
ended up hideously out of tune and needed a lot of love and attention
before they would sing again. Imagine Ada's piano in its crate
on the high seas. Then it gets left on the beach and the waves
wash round its legs. And the mist comes down. It makes for glorious
images, this poor piano, but what are we to believe about it? Could it really survive all that? Hundreds of thousands
of pianos were brought to Australia and New Zealand by sea last
century, and many were no doubt spoiled. I wondered how Ada's
could survive the treatment it received. (In an arresting publicity
still -- a shot that I think is not in the film -- Flora is sitting
on the piano as it stands on the beach. I doubt that Ada would
allow her to sit on the piano. But it makes a dreamy image, the
child in white lace petticoats posing on the piano on the wild
and wonderful shoreline.) As part of the dream imagery this piano
is superb -- as the centre of a story it is problematic.
THIS ESSAY HAS BEEN SPLIT IN TWO FOR EASIER DOWNLOADING. PART
TWO IS HERE