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The verb “To lord” is defined by the OED as “to play the lord, behave in a lordly manner, assume an air of grandeur, to rule tyrannically or domineer”. These days if this phrase is heard at all, it is usually in the idiomatic form “lord over” or “lord it over”. One finds use of this term in Shakespeare and Spenser, but the OED also tells us that it was being used even 200 years earlier. Since there have been lords, it seems there has been lording.

Two cultural events intersected in my life this past month, one an opera, the other a TV series, that brought this phrase and its human consequences to mind. In 1984, BBC released its series The Jewel in the Crown, an interwoven set of stories set during the last days of the Raj in India, and masterfully adapted from the enormous four novels by Paul Scott that comprised his  Raj Quartet. Beautifully cast and acted, and produced with lavish attention to period and geography that probably could not be afforded these days, this series bears rewatching for its minutely observed interplay of power, class, caste, cultural misunderstanding, and the price paid by both master and servant in an unequal society.

In The Jewel in the Crown, the rigid social structure of a British colonial class are imposed onto a pre-existing, ancient, diverse, politically tumultuous India, with its own feudal structures and hierarchies. One might assume that this is a direct transference of the class system in England to its largest colony. Rather, at least by the time of Paul Scott’s observations, it is something of a perversion, for even though the stories within this series are about the scrambling for power and status by the domination and abuse of others, instead of stemming from the platform of aristocratic privilege, it is fueled by race and nationality. The lowliest English person is a “better” to any Indian, and no one is allowed to forget it. In a late episode, one English character, clearly a member of the upper crust at home, complains that the attraction of colonial India is that it provides mediocre and middle class English people the opportunity to “lord it over” Indians. Perhaps this is the essence of colonial power everywhere – the chance to go elsewhere and reinvent a system of privilege to which one would not have access at home. In this series, the devastating consequences of this imbalance are played out.

Leaping back and forward in time, there is a shining new production at the Metropolitan Opera, just weeks old now, of the 1786 opera The Marriage of Figaro. A wonderfully fresh interpretation directed by Richard Eyre, built on the brilliant structure of Mozart’s music, it too tells a story, albeit in comedic form, of power, aristocratic entitlement and abuse, and the deleterious effects of bad behavior. Where The Jewel in the Crown embraces an entire continent, a world at war, and the collision of two very different cultures, The Marriage of Figaro focuses the story to the domestic level, and the power imbalance caused by hereditary prerogative within a specific 18th century household. There is one master, one mistress, a clever set of servants, several threats, attempted seductions and a great many shenanigans along the way. It is a jubilant piece, and one of the great masterpieces of western art.

It is a tribute to the warmth and humanity of the Swedish baritone Peter Mattei, who plays the Count, that in this production we are not entirely offended by his reprobate behavior – his determined attempts to seduce his wife’s maid Susanna the night prior to her marriage, his dictatorial domination of his wife’s young admirer Cherubino….for once, despite his actions, this Count seems at least to be worthy of the Countess’ love, and we are rooting for their reconciliation. However, the serious nature of the power imbalance of the household is still there in dark corners, despite being treated with cocky irony by the playwright Beaumarchais (the origin of the opera’s story) and with sublime charm and humor by Mozart. Buffoonish as some of the behavior is, we are aware that these servants essentially have no control over their own lives, and that the masters can behave as they wish. The servant Figaro’s subversion of the Count’s will caused Beaumarchais no end of trouble in 1778….the play was suppressed for several years. Messing with royal privilege in late 18th century France – the coming Revolution notwithstanding – was not a joke.

The intense hierarchy of the feudal system, developed in the Middle Ages as a military construct in which defense and protection were extended in exchange for loyalty and servitude, changed and evolved as the military necessity disappeared and societies changed. However, the concept that those with high status make the decisions, and those of low status are subject to those decisions, regardless of their own desires, dignity or determination, is with us to this day. What has changed is what delineates status: money has for the most part replaced heredity as the bestower of privilege. We have made strides, we think of ourselves as equal….we are above, or beyond, the behavior of 18th century counts or mid-20th century colonizers. Aren’t we?

©Poets Sinews, 2014. Reuse with permission.