Saturday, May 2, 2009

Getting Medieval on TV with Bea Arthur

Actor and comedian Beatrice "Bea" Arthur (1922-2009) passed away a week ago on 25 April 2009 (read her obituary from the New York Times or her biography on Wikipedia).  She had a long career on television, film, and the stage, and, of interest to medievalists, one of the works that she starred in, Maude, includes references to medieval subjects.

Created by Norman Lear as a spin-off of his All in the Family sitcom (1971-1979),  the television series Maude (1972-1978) showcases the talents of Bea Arthur, who played the title character Maude Findlay, the unconventional, outspoken, liberal feminist cousin of All in the Family’s Edith Bunker.   Like its source, Maude is set in contemporary America, but its theme song “And Then There’s Maude,” sung by Donny Hathaway and composed by Dave Grusin with lyrics by husband and wife Alan and Marilyn Bergman, links Maude, an “uncompromisin’, enterprisin’, anything but tranquilizin’” figure, with four exceptional women from history: two from the Middle Ages, Lady Godiva and Joan of Arc, and two from the modern era, Betsy Ross and Isadora Duncan.  Godiva, described as “a freedom rider,” a reference to American Civil Rights activists who challenged segregation in the early 1960s, is recalled for her legendary ride naked through eleventh-century Coventry, England; the lyricists seem only vaguely aware of the details of the myth—Godiva rode not to protest segregation but her husband’s taxation of the populace—and claim, in direct opposition to the legends that preserve her dignity, that “she didn't care if the whole world looked”.  Joan of Arc, who had “the Lord to guide her,” is called “a sister who really cooked,” a reference presumably to her great deeds against the English forces during the Hundred Year’s War, though the lyric also, rather tastelessly, alludes to her death by immolation.  

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