Issue 168 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published October 1993 Copyright © Socialist Review
A Scots Quair
by Lewis Grassic Gibbon
Adapted by Alastair Cording
The Glasgow based TAG theatre company has brought Grassic Gibbon's trilogy of books to life.
Sunset Song, Cloud Howe and Grey Granite--collectively known as A Scots Quair--are the story of a dying culture and the birth of a new one. Through the eyes of the heroine, Chris Guthrie, we see the destruction of the old Scottish peasantry accelerated by the First World War, and the encroachment of a brutal system of exploitation which leads to the open class warfare of the 1920s and 1930s.
This staging is one of the most exciting and political of recent years, bringing to mind some of the best agitprop theatre of the 1960s and 1970s.
The closed and narrow community of Kinraddie is centred on a land which has remained unchanged for generations, but which finds the outside world encroaching on it dramatically. In Sunset Song young men go off to the war, some--like Chris's young husband Ewan--never to return. The landscape itself is destroyed when the trees are felled for the war industry.
The upheavals and class polarisation of the interwar years are central to Chris's story. She marries an idealistic Church of Scotland minister, whose aim is to eliminate poverty in the mill town of Segget where he preaches. The failure of Labour Party reforms, the betrayal of the 1926 General Strike and the bitter fruits of that betrayal for workers in the late 1920s are all shown as contributing to Robert Colquohoun's despair.
When a rat kills the baby of an evicted couple, he is stirred to protest at the failure of the churches and the need for revolution, but dies after giving his sermon.
In Grey Granite Chris and her now grown up son Ewan move to the city, where Chris struggles to run a boarding house and Ewan leads a strike in the steelworks, is beaten by the police and becomes a Communist. The trilogy ends with Ewan leading a hunger march to London and Chris returning to her original ruined home to end her life.
But the bare bones of the plot in no way do justice either to the books or to the plays. Perhaps the most remarkable feature of the books is their use of language. Grassic Gibbon uses the Scots dialect to convey his image of a community in the Howe of the Mearns, in the east of Scotland. At first, many of the words are incomprehensible (at least to an English reader), but Grassic Gibbon in a preface asks the reader to bear with him, and to imagine a situation if the Dutch language disappeared and the writer had to write about Dutch life in German. He would include all sorts of words and dialect which are incomprehensible to a German speaker, but the meaning would become clear.
So it is with Sunset Song. And as Chris's story progresses and she leaves her childhood home, the language becomes more anglicised. By the time we reach the city in Grey Granite, much of the dialect has disappeared under the impact of the radio, cinema and other mass media. In place of the lyrical feel to the language of the earlier books, there is a feeling of brittleness and shattering, as the stable world collapses and Chris and Ewan's lives diverge.
A theatre production which reproduced these stories literally could have produced a nostalgic chunk of Scottish heritage.
But this production is as political as you could wish for. It has opponents of the war imprisoned as conscientious objectors, marchers singing the Red Flag and the Internationale, strikers fighting with scabs and police.
More than that, it conveys--through music, imaginative staging and very good acting--people grappling with a changing world and new ideas, and, in the case of Chris, with the oppression of being a woman: domestic drudgery, sexual pressure from her father, the pain of childbirth, her loveless final marriage.
Yet Chris is also portrayed as a woman with strong sexual feelings and social independence.
Perhaps best about these plays is their sense of political commitment. Obviously the novels lose something in being staged, but, as Gibbon's daughter has said, 'a much more significant loss threatens the Quair as its revolutionary spark is snuffed out beneath the weight of academia, school syllabuses, the heritage industry.'
The plays are in the tradition of Gibbon himself--subversive and revolutionary. Whether you have read the books or not, try to see them. They are a thrilling theatrical experience.
A Scots Quair tours Scotland, including Fife, Dundee, Aberdeen and Glasgow, during October and November
by Harold Pinter
At the end of the 1950s Harold Pinter revolutionised British drama with such plays as The Birthday Party and The Caretaker. A whole new language was born--oblique yet crystalline, often savagely funny.
In the late 1960s and early 1970s Pinter became politically sharper, using his sensitivity to words and the pattern of speech to strip bare establishment hypocrisy and pretention in his plays such as No Man's Land. More recently he has opted for a more overt political message, although much of his best work has been in screenplays for films such as The French Lieutenant's Woman and, most recently, The Trial.
Moonlight is described as Pinter's first full length play for 15 years and it returns to the style and themes of earlier years. The themes are death and family relationships--or rather the alienation of family relationships. A bedridden middle aged man is dying. By turns, he snarls in frustration and whines in self pity while his wife sits by him with her embroidery. In another bedroom two brothers seem to be plotting their inheritance. As the play unfolds, they discuss a meeting of trustees which becomes more and more like a meeting of shareholders and directors.
Although Pinter himself says that Moonlight is not a political play, it nevertheless has an underlying political content. Pinter's trademark--more than all the pauses and tricks of dialogue which have come to be known as Pinteresque--is his ability to dissect, expose and mock the most subtle class differences.
The language the two brothers use mimics the pompous absurdity of business language: 'My father was a very thorough man. He invariably brought the meetings in on time and under budget and he always kept a weather eye open for blasphemy, gluttony and buggery... My father adhered strictly to the rule of law.' 'Which is not a very long way from the rule of thumb.' 'Not as the crow flies, no'.
With Ralph, a 'family friend', Pinter captures the middle class philistine: 'Your father could never be described as a natural athlete. Not by a long chalk. The man was a thinker. Well, there's a place in this world for thinking, I certainly wouldn't argue with that. The trouble with so much thinking, though, or with that which calls itself thinking, is that it's like farting Annie Laurie down a keyhole.'
And in the central relationship (anti-relationship) of man and wife, Pinter cleverly contrasts the deliberately boorish behaviour of the aggressive petty bourgeois with the easy ability of the well bred upper middle class woman to rise above that sort of thing.
All this is beautifully done and often extremely funny. The problem for Pinter is that his style has become so much part of theatrical and satirical language. Thus when the brothers recite the names of those attending the meeting you are reminded of Rowan Atkinson or Monty Python. Pinter is the original, but he's been imitated quite effectively. Sometimes too the language of class that Pinter mimics seems stuck in the 1960s.
A more serious flaw is that the ghostlike figure of the daughter, who introduces and rounds off the play, is too weak to justify the strength of the images Pinter puts in her mouth.
So Moonlight does not rank with the best of his work. But sharp writing and perceptive acting still produce a riveting performance.
Moonlight plays at the Almeida Theatre, London, until 30 October
by Emile Zola
Emile Zola's novel Thérèse Raquin caused a sensation on its publication in the 1860s. The accusations of pornography and filth which were hurled at it led Zola to produce a detailed definition of the 'scientific naturalism' at the heart of his writing:
'I have chosen people completely dominated by their nerves and blood, without free will, drawn to each action of their lives by the inexorable laws of their physical nature... in a word, I had only one desire: given a highly sexed man and an unsatisfied woman, to uncover the animal side of them and see that alone, then throw them together in a violent drama and note down with scrupulous care the sensations and actions of these creatures. I simply applied to two living bodies the analytical method that surgeons apply to corpses.'
Moralistic charges, Zola argued, could not be levelled at what he saw as a scientific study of human behaviour.
The characters in Thérèse Raquin were not real people, but the product of Zola's own view of human behaviour. His characters are controlled not only by their physical environment, which he describes in immense detail, but also by deeper instincts. They are driven by forces they do not understand and have no way of challenging.
Thérèse and her lover Laurent--having murdered Thérèse's meek and sickly husband, Camille--are driven into a frenzy of guilt and despair. Ensnared together through their actions, the lovers spiral towards their bloody end--each despises, torments and blames the other, attempts at lovemaking are interrupted by the vision of Camille's rotting corpse, death seems inevitable.
It is a bleak appraisal of human behaviour, but the novel at least is a compelling thriller. Unfortunately, this new adaption is anything but compelling. For a production billed as the new visual theatre, with sexual themes relevant for a contemporary audience, it is surprisingly lacking in any dramatic impact.
Technically everything is in place. The set is impressive. The squalid atmosphere of Thérèse Raquin's shabby haberdashery shop in a dank Parisian alleyway is brilliantly recreated. The stifling lives of the characters are caught behind glass windows, which unfold to reveal the simmering emotions inside. The morgue scene is particularly inventive--using lighting and sound to conjure up a vivid image of death and decay.
But the set doesn't save the play from becoming a plodding and overlong drama. To translate Zola's novel effectively, the audience needs to be caught up in the rising emotions of the characters. But this is where the play stumbles most.
Partly this is to do with ineffective dramatic devices. Camille, for example, is played like a classic sit-com idiot. It is impossible to imagine such a character could move anyone to murder, let alone to feel guilty about it. In fact the comic interludes throughout are misplaced.
The characters keep the audience up to date with the story by reading directly from Zola's narrative. Sometimes this works, but more often it kills the tension. And because the audience had not been pulled into the story, the lovemaking scene early in the play and the hysteria at the end became embarrassing melodrama. In the performance I saw there were muffled giggles at what should have been the height of tragedy.
In the end I felt cheated by the visual tricks which promised so much but covered up for rather poor acting and shallow storytelling.
Thérèse Raquin plays at the Young Vic, London
Dir: John Sayles
Anyone familiar with previous John Sayles films like Matewan or City of Hope will recognise the way in which he manages to convey a real sense of optimism without ever lapsing into sentimentality whatever his subject. This latest film continues the tradition.
A soap opera star, May-Alice (Mary McDonnell), becomes paralysed from the waist down after a horrific car accident in New York. The film opens with her waking sense of panic and terror as she realises the scale of her injury. She decides to return to the now empty family home in Louisiana to drown her sorrows in wine and play out her days slumped on a couch watching wall to wall television with the remote control switch as her 'umbilical cord'.
A series of live-in nurses are sent from an agency to care for her, but they seem to be more concerned with their own domestic dramas than with their patient. This, combined with an increasingly cantankerous and uncompliant May-Alice, ensures that none of them stay very long. They are succeeded by Chantelle (Alfre Woodard), a young black nurse from Chicago. She needs regular employment because of her turbulent past, but she is not prepared to become servile or to be treated as a skivvy.
This is where the real drama begins. Chantelle has a professional determination to develop whatever muscular movement is possible in her patient so that she can become less reliant on her nurse. But May-Alice has become trapped in a haze of alcohol induced self indulgence and refuses to take easily to the regime of self reliance. Chantelle, however, doesn't flinch and won't allow herself to be intimidated.
The ensuing conflict doesn't shrink from exploring some of the worst aspects of paralysis like incontinence and sexual frustration and this exploration highlights the determination of Chantelle to make her patient more able to look after herself.
One of the greatest strengths of the film is the way in which Sayles controls its pace. The initial horror and panic in New York gives way to a painful and increasingly intense sense of claustrophobia in the Louisiana living room. This in turn shifts dramatically as Chantelle gets to work and the scenes shift to external locations like the garden, the small town, the photographic dark room and above all the swamps.
When May-Alice is given an old Leica camera by a wayward uncle on a drunken visit, she finds in photography a real sense of fulfilment and interest. She is gradually able to break out of her mental and physical prison. In perhaps the most memorable scene the two women are taken on a boat trip round the swamp. For Chantelle, the city girl, it is a captivating and unnerving experience. For May-Alice it is a homecoming that reawakens in her a very strong sense of the past that she has never allowed to leave her.
This is visual storytelling at its very best. Sayles has written about the three components in film making (script, acting and visual imagery) and has argued that the last is often the hardest to achieve particularly in the low budget films that he cut his teeth on. Here he is able to marry the three to perfection. The dialogue is typically sharp and often witty and the main actors are given enough space to develop complex roles.
Sayles manages to sustain the women's relationship as the central focus of the film even when they both establish warm friendships with men. There are no white knights coming to the rescue and there is no glib and unconvincing conclusion for the benefit of the Hollywood bankers.
The soundtrack is based on a wealth of original cajun songs and melodies, a rich mixture of different cultural traditions which reinforce the strong sense of place established by the visual imagery. There are few films that you don't want to end. This is one. Don't miss it.
In the Line of Fire
Dir: Wolfgang Peterson
Clint Eastwood established his reputation through the turbulent 1960s and 1970s. He played characters like the near psychotic Harry Callaghan in Dirty Harry, or Sergio Leone's man with no name in the Spaghetti Westerns such as A Fistful of Dollars. Life for the Eastwood characters then was simple: kill or be killed. Justice was dispensed by strong, cool headed, conscienceless loners in a world of good versus evil--even if Dirty Harry did fight dirty we were all left in no doubt that by the end of the film the villains were the ones who were dead.
But this latest film, along with his previous outing, Unforgiven, is not that simple. Eastwood plays Frank Horrigan, a veteran US secret service man who stumbles on a plot to assassinate the president. In his youth Horrigan had been assigned to J F Kennedy. He had been on duty the day the president had been shot and had since felt guilty that he could have done more to save Kennedy's life. This time, he is determined to keep the president alive.
The president's would be assassin Mitch Leary, brilliantly played by John Malkovich, contacts Horrigan and the subsequent relationship the two strike up forms the centerpiece of the film. Leary wants Horrigan to accept that society has decayed beyond repair and all that's left is the individual's fight for survival. 'There is no cause worth fighting for. All we have is the game', he says.
In part, Horrigan agrees. He tells us that the death of JFK marked a turning point in US society and the end of the hope for peace and racial harmony which JFK personified for many people. Of course Kennedy was one of the coldest Cold War warriors and was only pushed into entertaining blacks in the White House by the millions of blacks converging on the White House lawn. Nevertheless, Horrigan's, and his generation's, frustrated ideals have engendered a great cynicism about American politics.
Through the film the president and those around him in his administration and the various sections of the armed body of men who defend him are revealed as stupid, morally bankrupt, cowardly and corrupt. The president is Reagan-like--a vacuous, waving buffoon who, after one attempt on his life, is ushered to safety by a vast posse of security guards and aids looking like a 1990s version of the Keystone Cops.
Leary himself is an ex-CIA assassin, trained and armed by the US state who turns against that state when it no longer needs him, much like a General Noriega figure. The CIA themselves are more keen to hide the identity of Leary than help Horrigan stop Leary killing the president.
Horrigan then is certainly not motivated by any sense of defending the integrity of the US state. He is much more motivated by a determination to 'do a good job', to maintain a sense of self worth by striving for the highest standards of personal achievement. It just so happens that in this case that means defeating his opponent's attempts on the head of state's life.
As in Unforgiven, Eastwood's character is riven with doubt and guilt about past deeds. His frailties and weaknesses, physical and mental, push through to the surface as he struggles with his conscience and frustrations.
Dir: Tony Scott
Quentin Tarantino is fast becoming one of Hollywood's hottest commercial prospects. With only two films to his name, Tarantino's scripts are already selling for half a million dollars each. His first film, Reservoir Dogs, established him as a director.
His script for True Romance utilises the successful formula of Reservoir Dogs as well as drawing on a host of classic American road movies. Starring Christian Slater and Patricia Arquette, the film begins in Detroit with lots of grey, grainy shots. Against this backdrop Clarence and Alabama fall passionately in love. He works in a comic shop, she is a novice hooker.
As if to prove his love, Clarence commits a murder, blowing away the pimp of his new found lover. At this juncture the couple are forced to flee from the scene and take off in an old convertible across America.
Although the plot unashamedly conforms to numerous Hollywood conventions, it does so with style and humour, whilst at the same time poking fun. There is also enough blood and bullets to rival Reservoir Dogs, although the violence is nowhere near as disturbed.
However, True Romance, although well worth watching, is completely apolitical. Tarantino is clearly a talented film maker, with an obsession for movies and TV culture. You get the impression that if he moved on from these areas to make a movie with even a slight political edge, his films could have a much more hard hitting impact.