It was a week ago, along about 9 p.m., as the lustful pout of Julia Mottram faded out and the sleepy-lidded sneer of William F. Buckley Jr. faded in, that the awful truth crashed in on me. After nearly two months of blind, reflexive fixation--months in which 8 p.m. Monday had been set aside for genuflection before the shimmering screen--I at least realized that "Brideshead Revisited" is, on the whole, a bore. Once again, we gullible Yankees have been taken in by the crafty limeys.
The success of "Brideshead" among the American upper-middle class (for that, make no mistake about it, is its true and perhaps only audience) demonstrates nothing so much as that Anglophilia is alive and well in the colonies. How else can we explain our addiction to a seemingly endless series of programs that, viewed without the tinted glass of nostalgia for a life we never lived, offer little except pretty pictures and handsome acting--and not all that much of the latter, now that Sir John Gielgud, Claire Bloom and Anthony Andrews have departed the premises.
"Brideshead" is soap opera for the gentry--not the landed gentry, a rare species in these United States, but the educated and moderately affluent gentry that gets its politics from public radio and its economics from Louis Rukeyser. There is nothing wrong with soap opera--I tend to go along with John Irving's theory that life is soap opera--but it should be recognized and labeled for what it is. Like "General Hospital" and "As the World Turns," "Brideshead" is highly professional television, and agreeable diversion if not taken in excessive doses; but it is not great drama, it is not good drama, it is not even drama, and we delude ourselves when we pretend that it is--when we attempt to persuade ourselves that watching it is what we upward-aspiring Americans most adore, an "educational experience."
It is worth noting that "Brideshead," though reasonably popular in its native land, scarcely achieved the cult status in England that it has found over here. Perhaps that is because the English, having a rather more intimate acquaintance than we Americans with the world of Charles and Sebastian, are rather less eager to retreat into it. Perhaps on the other hand it is that "Brideshead" was really manufactured for the export trade. As was proved in the past by "Upstairs, Downstairs" and the other precious jewels of "Masterpiece Theater," a very large soft spot exists among upper-middle-brow Americans for all things English, especially all things upper-class English. The English, who on the whole are not stupid, know a sucker when they see one: Give us a smidgen of Eton and a dollop of Harrods, toss in a thigh of Princess Di, and we writhe in near-uncontrollable ecstasy.
In "Brideshead" we get not smidgens and dollops but oodles and gollops--and this more than anything else, I think, is why the series has taken us by storm. Yet its actual charms, examined clinically, are quite limited. Why, for example, should we take the slightest interest in any but a few of its characters? Though perhaps the various agonies to which the members of the Marchmain family subject themselves serve as reminders that the rich, too, have their difficulties, "Brideshead" is almost completely lacking in universal appeal; the anguish of being rich, English and Roman Catholic does not survive the transatlantic passage, and the theological writhings in which Evelyn Waugh indulges himself--just wait until the final episode--surely are lost to all but the most specialized American viewer in a fog of obscurity. Especially now that we are left with only Charles and Julia at center stage, it is difficult to see why we continue to pay attention; Charles is a toady and Julia a drip, and the actors playing them were discovered in a lumberyard.
Then there is the matter of plot. It was never Waugh's strong suit--he thrived on scene, anecdote and vignette--but in "Brideshead" it utterly routs him. He allows his most arresting character, Sebastian, to make a quiet disappearance midway through the telling; ditto for Charles' father and Sebastian's mother. Lord Marchmain, whose prolonged dying is the linchpin of the story's denouement, is hardly a presence until it becomes convenient, for Waugh's purposes, for him to go to his reward. The switch from thinly veiled homosexuality to passionate heterosexuality is bewildering and unconvincing--even allowing for the erotic peculiarities endemic among alumni of the British public schools. "Brideshead" contains a number of fine moments, but as a whole it simply does not hang together.
As has been pointed out just about everywhere, the television adaptation is notably faithful to the novel. That is true, though not necessarily a virtue. Aside from the failures of plot already noted, the novel is inferior Waugh. That it was selected for adaptation is easy to explain; its somewhat ham-handed nostalgia for lost delights and loves translates easily into visual images of the sort at which the British television folk are so adept. But this same nostalgia puts a most uncharacteristically sugary lump at the center of the enterprise, rendering it--once you get beneath the little explosions of wit and dazzle--not sharp and biting, as one expects of Waugh, but pat and sentimental. Not merely has all of this been transferred from the book to the screen, but it has been given even greater emphasis in what I take to be the interests of expanding the program's popularity.
The fact of it is that Waugh was not, by most of the evidence, a very nice man. He wore his nastiness well; venom was his stock in trade, and because he employed it with such glee and artistry he was one of the great comic novelists of the 20th century. When he got down to the business of hating everything he could put his eyes on, hating it with a malicious wit that was quite breathtaking, he was a master. But when he turned sentimental, as from time to time he did, he was in unfamiliar territory and he made mistakes. "Brideshead," in substantial measure, is a mistake.
In "Brideshead" he makes matters all the worse by introducing Catholicism, with a lump and a thud and a shudder, as a major theme. Waugh came late to religiosity, but when he got there he went whole hog. As is too often true of Catholic novelists on both sides of the Atlantic, he liked to make a great public display of his battles with his God and his demons and his priests, opening and closing his chapel doors with thunderous bangs and crashes. Unlike Flannery O'Connor, who knew how to explore religious issues in fiction without telling us that they were there, Waugh hauled out the trumpets and the gongs and the fireworks; unlike J.F. Powers, who knows that there is fun to be found in the comings and goings of the anointed, Waugh put on his most serious face when unearthly questions came to the fore. "Brideshead," especially toward the end, bogs down in amateur theology, which has a soporific effect exceeded only by that of amateur psychology.
Because this television adaptation of "Brideshead" is likely to be the introduction to Waugh and his work for most American viewers, they will come away from it with an impression of him that, though not entirely false, certainly is distorted. Waugh was a satirist, not a theologian; a comedian, not a philosopher. Further, television can only give viewers a hint of his ingenious, inimitable (though many have tried) and masterly prose style; memorable lines ("He was a young history don, a short, plump man, dapper in dress, with sparse hair brushed flat on an over-large head, neat hands, small feet and the general appearance of being too often bathed") and phrases ("a thin bat's squeak of sexuality") get lost amid all the pictures.
Of course it's a good thing that Waugh is finding a new audience in this country, even if for the wrong novel and the wrong reasons. If television can drive readers to the book, as the best-seller lists indicate it has, then more power to it; Waugh's better novels are available in paperback, and perhaps some new converts will find their way to them. And, yes, though my early enthusiasm for the series has largely faded, I shall stick with it to the end. But let us not delude ourselves with the notion that there is much substance beneath the superficial brilliance of this production; as they have done in the past, the limeys have put one over on us.