Issue 169 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published November 1993 Copyright © Socialist Review
The Absence of War
by David Hare
On the face of it it's difficult to think of a more boring subject for the theatre than the last general election, when, as David Hare puts it, 'All the politicians are pretending to be bank managers.' Nevertheless, Hare succeeds admirably.
The play focuses on why Labour lost and the drama takes place inside the small circle of party leaders and their assistants, strategists and advertising executives. It is a world completely cut off from the mass of the population and the working class is mentioned only briefly as though it were a relic of a bygone age.
In many ways the political scope of the play is quite limited and no great analysis is attempted. The point is a simple one, that Labour lost because it had moved too far to the right, and became too much like the Tories.
The characters in the play are not Kinnock, Hattersley, Cunningham and co, but there is much that is easily recognisable from Labour's present sorry state. The party leader is called George Jones, from a solid working class south London background, who joined the Labour Party to make life better for working people. As a leader determined to pull together a divided and defeated party he has hammered home a single message--to get elected Labour must be 'respectable'.
Of course this means dropping any hint of radicalism and any idea of challenging the rotten priorities of capitalism. For Jones himself, as with Kinnock, this means turning his back on the vigour and militancy of his younger days. In particular he drops fiery speeches for the type we heard so often from Kinnock--deadly dull, endless streams of very similar sounding words, going nowhere--'like a dictionary on speed', says an advisor.
Hare has a remarkable understanding of this process and its implications. Partly this is because he had privileged access to the actual Labour Party campaign. He was allowed to sit in on the daily strategy meeting and press conferences, and interviewed many Labour politicians and advisors.
Much of this research is published in the fascinating companion book Asking Around. The evidence shows the Labour campaign to have been completely confusing and disjointed, verging at times on the totally bizarre. For instance Labour's main slogan for the last week's campaigning was, 'It's time for a change', so the head of the advertising team instructed all politicians when interviewed to start every sentence with, 'It's time...' as the way to win the election.
It is Hare's skill as a playwright which takes this far beyond simple documentary or a dry political lecture with a few actors thrown in.
Through the character of Jones, brilliantly played by John Thaw, Hare shows us both the tragedy of many socialists who join the Labour Party with such high hopes, and the bankruptcy of a Labour strategy based on aping the Tories.
In one immensely powerful scene, Jones tries to make one of his old fiery socialist speeches but finds he just can't do it anymore. He has worked so long and hard at being 'respectable' that his socialist politics have rotted away. Politically he is disarmed, but his defeat tastes all the more bitter because it is self inflicted.
Hare poses the question: who will believe in a party which doesn't believe in itself? A despairing old member worries that if someone asked Labour the time, the reply would be, 'What time would you like it to be?' The strategy of moving further and further to the right not only lets the Tories off the hook, but eventually destroys Labour's last shreds of self confidence. Hare draws a convincing picture of a Labour leadership which is split, uncertain, jittery and which believes everything it reads in the Tory press.
Not surprisingly the play has proved very controversial. But it is a sign of the times that it went down very well with the audience in the theatre. It is an extremely political play, yet I have never seen such intense concentration in the audience--even more remarkable when you consider that everybody knew the final result. At one point an exasperated character shouts, 'Look, we're not the bloody Tories!', which drew spontaneous applause from several parts of the theatre.
The acting varies from good to excellent and much of the play is very funny (especially whenever the Tories appear). Hare's understanding of the crisis in British politics is clearly much better than many who glory in the title 'political commentator'.
The Absence of War plays at the National Theatre in London
Tamburlaine the Great
by Christopher Marlowe
Christopher Marlowe was born in the 1560s--a time of huge social change. The property relations which had glued sections of the English ruling class together in an uneasy alliance had been smashed by Henry VIII's Reformation 30 years earlier. Church land was up for grabs and Henry and his mates took full advantage. Enclosure of land had thrown thousands of peasants onto the highways and into the towns.
Political intrigue and royal in-fighting still hung in the air as Elizabeth ascended the throne. Hierarchies and old pecking orders were undermined. New men of wealth and property were emerging to challenge the old.
Henry's attack on Catholicism set off a tussle for ideological power which was not to be resolved until after the English Revolution a hundred years later. Elizabeth's reign was marked by vicious battles between different strains of Puritanism while the old Catholic forces kept a watching brief inside and outside the country. The scope and depth of these struggles are amply reflected in Marlowe's work.
Tamburlaine is a Scythian shepherd who amasses power to conquer the kings of large parts of the world. He is an outsider, a newcomer, in large part like Marlowe himself--who came from humble roots to win a scholarship at Oxford--but also like the new men around Elizabeth's court.
The character of Tamburlaine can also very clearly be seen as reflecting the then growing belief in the power of reason over mysticism and of the new feeling abroad that man could affect his surroundings and his own future. He need no longer be content with his predetermined fate or reward in some afterlife. 'Nature that framed us of four elements/Warring within our breasts regiment/Doth teach us all to have aspiring minds:/Our souls whose faculties can comprehend/The wondrous architecture of the world:And measure every wandering planet's course/Still climbing after knowledge infinite/And always moving as the restless spheres/Wills us to to wear ourselves and never rest/Until we reach the ripest fruit of all/That perfect bliss and soul felicity/The sweet fruition of an earthly crown.'
This was dynamite in the context of 16th century theatre, especially after Elizabeth moved against the more radical elements within the new church she was struggling to control later on in her reign. Marlowe was subject to investigations by her Star Chamber, a slightly less fanatical form of the Inquisition.
Unfortunately, very little of this manages to force its way on to the Barbican stage. What we get is a sort of Conan the Barbarian version of Marlowe, with lots of blood, extended fight scenes and pyrotechnics but not much space for reflection on what the playwright is trying to say. There are two main reasons for this.
Firstly, Barbican managers may well have calculated that unless they present such a play as a sort of blood drenched pantomime no one will want to come and see it. Visual effects take precedence over dramatic content so that at one point Anthony Sher who plays Tamburlaine speaks blank verse while suspended ten foot above the stage gripping a rope with one of his legs. This is certainly athletically very impressive but I for one can't remember a word he said.
Secondly, the production team are trying to make a point about the danger to society of dictators. While this is obviously something socialists would applaud, Tamburlaine is not the play to do it with. A Scythian shepherd who looks to reason instead of mysticism, while putting one over on kings, is a challenge to social hierarchies and a historically progressive character. He can't be simply lumped in with the latter day Hitlers of this world as the producers try to.
Attention to history is completely lacking in this production, making the performance simplistic, empty and as an attempt to attack the dangers of dictatorship totally ineffective. This is a great shame, since the play is such a strong one.
Tamburlaine plays in repertory at the Royal Shakespeare Company, Barbican Theatre, London
The Cement Garden
Dir: Andrew Birkin
Once upon a time, before permissiveness, there was the family. Dad sat at the head of the table and did the outside chores. Mum sat beside him and did the cooking. The children were well behaved. Sex did not exist. When did this happen? If at all, the family last occurred in the 1950s.
This fantasy has had a bit of an airing recently. As their world collapses round them, the lower middle classes seek refuge in a never never world of family values. The Cement Garden, closely based on Ian McEwan's novel, shows what monstrous perversions lurk beneath the surface.
The 1950s are suggested in the film through the style of clothes and furniture. But the house is dilapidated, a square box surrounded by a square garden, marooned in a concrete wasteland distantly ringed by high rise flats. Family values are already threadbare--but the threat is not from without. It is from within. Family values themselves are the source of all perversions.
Children are taught to play their proper roles, with father and mother as models. But when Dad dies of a heart attack, while cementing over the garden, and Mum gradually fades away, the role playing can become a bit too literal.
Abnormality flourishes in this thoroughly internalised world. The younger brother, Tom, is dressed up as a girl as part of a game of mummies and daddies. Jack and Julie, the eldest, adolescent children, play the parts of father and mother--but not necessarily in the 'correct' order. Jack, with his long hair, moods and narcissism, is much closer to being a 'woman' than his sister, who takes on the responsibility of running things and so of being a 'man'.
Above all, keeping things within the family makes the consolation of sex a source of guilt and confusion. Jack slopes off to the toilet for a wank instead of helping his Dad cement the garden and so is 'responsible' for his Dad's death. Mum tells him that doing 'that' is the equivalent of losing two pints of blood. When she dies peacefully in her bed, having long abandoned any attempt to get out of the house, he preserves her at home--in concrete in the cellar.
This then becomes the family secret, protecting the home against outside intruders, including Julie's flashy, mature, businessman boyfriend. And in inheriting the roles of father and mother looking after the household, Jack and Julie also inherit their sexual roles. Incest is the ultimate in keeping the family together.
The Cement Garden is not exactly a jolly little film, but it is compelling viewing. In its cool, detached way, it is a splendid satire on family values.
Far from being the squeaky clean world of morality and purity, the family is portrayed as a putrefying mass of perversion, which no amount of cement can keep from cracking open.
As they consummate their incestuous relationship, Jack and Julie recognise that it is a fantasy to suppose they can exist in some changeless world outside time. That recognition is a kind of death in itself. They lie completely still in their parents' bed, illuminated by the flashing blue light of a police car.
Gripping though the film is in its claustrophobic intensity, it leaves you with a problem. It too is caught up in seeing society as nothing more than the family and outsiders. The only alternatives to the hotbed of family perversion are a pre-Thatcherite businessman and the state he calls in. Of course, the nature of the film prevents these two from being anything more than ciphers. But it is difficult not to worry whether these rather nastier horrors are let off too lightly.
As a satire against Tory fantasies about family values the film is devastating. But it is a satire on a road to nowhere.
Dir: Peter Wintonick and Mark Achbar
This is a rather wasted film about the ideas and life of Noam Chomsky. Nearly three hours long and apparently based upon 115 hours of footage, we have to sit through countless shots of cameras zooming in on Chomsky's opening remarks at universities and media studios across the globe. Coupled with a publisher's quip, repeated several times, that Chomsky is probably the greatest intellectual in the world, the filmmaker's cumbersome preoccupation with the man makes the exploration of his ideas on camera particularly frustrating.
Chomsky's political ideas are rooted in the anarcho-syndicalist or libertarian socialist tradition which had strong currency in the 1960s. In their different ways, Daniel Cohn-Bendit, the 1968 Paris student leader, and Abbie Hoffman, the American 'yippie' anti-war protester, were amongst its followers.
It is to Chomsky's credit that, as his stature has grown in the past 30 years, he has held on to these ideas. Yet what makes Chomsky particularly unusual is that he developed his political views, not as a radicalising student, but as an established scholar of linguistics. The film tells us too little about this. We learn about his controversial view that the human ability to communicate is genetically based and that there is an underlying 'common' language. We also hear of Chomsky's fascinating belief that the immense untapped creativity of ordinary people can be discerned from their everyday conversations with each other. But here the connection between Chomsky the radical linguist and would be revolutionary tails off.
Chomsky is best known for his outstanding investigations into the way the US media manipulates public opinion at home to justify domination abroad, especially in the Third World. He has defiantly used his academic status to publicly put his research at the disposal of movements struggling against the oppression of US power all over the world. This is obviously a key theme for a film and it should have come into its own.
In fairness, it nearly does. It very effectively counterposes the American media's exposure of Pol Pot's genocide in Cambodia with its silence over US backing for Indonesia's genocide in East Timor, which occurred more or less at the same time. And yet here too a question is left unanswered. An American journalist successfully takes up Chomsky's challenge to expose US complicity with genocide in East Timor.
The wall of silence is broken. But what does this tell us about Chomsky's theory of total media domination? His critics on camera tell us that it proves he is wrong. And there the matter is left.
There is a long history of radical intellectuals and radical individualism on the left in America. The very best of them like Chomsky have made a magnificent contribution to the struggle against capitalism. But their failure to give their hatred of the system theoretical underpinning can leave them floundering.
Something absolutely appalling happened to Chomsky. For reasons which the film does not make clear, he allows himself to be drawn into a defence, on the principle of 'free speech', of Robert Faurisson, the French neo-Nazi historian and Holocaust revisionist. Faurisson's publisher leapt upon Chomsky's comments and used them as an introduction to Faurisson's book.
Actually he provides the only way to deal with these new Nazi 'historians' in the film. He says, 'Even to enter debate about the Holocaust happening is to lose one's humanity.' Surely the same principle applies to giving the 'democratic right' to others to enter debate or publicise Faurisson's views.
It's a Great Big Shame
Dir: Written and directed by Mike Leigh
Mike Leigh has built a reputation over 20 years as a dramatist and film maker exposing absurdity in the attitudes and values of social life. His particular focus has often been on the ridiculous posturings of suburban life. Crucial to his style has been the use of improvisation techniques by actors. The result is that his characters frequently express cruelty, bitterness or despair through cracking dialogue, often spiced with outrageously wicked lines. His characters have an immediacy which makes them instantly recognisable as social types.
But because his dialogue reflects everyday speech so directly, his characters often remain one sided and superficial, parodies of real people, his work lacking dramatic tension.
His latest film, Naked, for which he won the best director award at the Cannes Film Festival, attempts to break new ground. It focuses on Johnny, an unemployed, homeless young man who is enraged at the state of humanity. It traces his nightmarish journey through the bleak landscape of down and out London. Johnny is cynical and promiscuous. He is plagued by loneliness and a sense of impotence which he tries to deal with by seeking power over a succession of women.
The film expresses a limited vision of contemporary life, in which everyone is trapped in their own despair and isolation. The idea that people can seek comfort in personal relationships or in collective action finds no echo. There is only the barest hint of human solidarity when the two women, Louise and Sophie, express a degree of mutual caring. But it is flawed by the dominant portrayal of women as the victims of men, or at least as dependent on them. Louise, Johnny's original girlfriend, gives Sophie, with whom he has a fling, her definition of a proper relationship: 'Living with someone who talks to you after they've bonked you.'
The play It's a Great Big Shame is really two plays. The first, set in 1893 is the story of Nellie, a waif who falls in love with Jim, a drayman. But he marries a respectable, domineering shop assistant, Ada. The play opens with Nellie singing the old music hall song from which the title derives, expressing her sadness and frustration. Leigh conjures up the vibrant atmosphere of the Victorian East End, the harshness of working class life and the comfort of the pub with its cosy group life and engaging, almost Dickensian, characters. But the act is marred by an over the top ending.
The second half, set in 1993, takes place in Ada and Jim's house. It deals with marital conflict between a young black couple. The modern version of Ada is the domineering wife Joy, who bullies her wimpish husband, egged on by her upwardly mobile sister Faith. The portrayal of Joy as a self hater who hides behind her spectacles has strength. But the action lacks conviction and the dialogue sounds raw, like a series of actors' improvisations.
The attempt to tie the two acts together by a final ghostly encounter between Ada and Joy is wholly unbelievable. Like Naked, this act expresses a highly pessimistic, one sided view of human relationships.
Its a Great Big Shame plays at the Theatre Royal, Stratford East