Issue 176 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published June 1994 Copyright © Socialist Review



Nothing is what it seems

The Draughtsman's Contract
Dir: Peter Greenaway

The most powerful participants
The most powerful participants

Let me put my cards on the table. In my view, Peter Greenaway is among the most brilliant film directors to emerge in modern cinema. He is certainly one of the most challenging and controversial. His work tends to arouse either huge enthusiasm or bitter repulsion in his audience. This is not just a product of the content of his films but of his method. The Draughtsman's Contract is no exception.

Released in 1982, and now re-released, this film has all the hallmarks of Greenaway's writing and direction. The plot is both complex and compelling. Mr Neville, an artist, is persuaded by the mistress of a great country estate to paint 12 views of the main house. They enter into a contract, in which Neville's price is not merely full board and a cash sum, but daily 'pleasure' with the mistress, Mrs Herbert. This is not to her liking, but she agrees.

Her husband, a disgusting, offensive 'head of the household' is apparently away in Southampton. He is soon found murdered in the moat. A mystery then develops as to who killed him and why. The plot is unravelled in a humorous and vicious climax.

Set in the summer of 1694, the film benefits from wonderful views of a southern English estate as the painter goes about his work. However, the setting is far more deliberate than beautiful scenery. Greenaway, as in his works since, attacks ideas and questions far deeper than the outline of the plot suggests. Firstly, there is constant reference to the politics of the day. Neville is a Catholic who retains feudal values despite living in the aftermath of the English Revolution of the 1640s and the 'Glorious Revolution' of 1688, which had finally consolidated capitalist rule in Britain. Politics largely expressed itself in terms of religion. Thus William of Orange, who came to power as king in 1688, was Protestant, as opposed to the deposed James II, a Catholic.

Neville rages against the other house guests, who attack Catholicism. Mr Herbert refuses to allow carp in his moat as they live too long and thus 'remind him of Catholics'. Asking about a child roaming the grounds, a guest explains to Neville how the child came to be an 'orphan', to which Neville squeals, 'An orphan, madam, because his mother became a Catholic?'

There is also a display of the decadence and conceit of the emerging ruling class. They are driven by a vulgar concern for material wealth and constantly scheme and conspire against each other. Gossip and rumour abound. Mr Herbert is reputed to have wanted a 'pantheon of reservoirs around the house because he was afraid of fire'.

There are two central female characters, Mrs Herbert and her daughter, Mrs Sarah Thalmann. As in Greenaway's subsequent films, the women are the most powerful participants. Greenaway tackles women's oppression in a very intelligent way, with a number of themes. The contract with Mr Neville, due to which Mrs Herbert suffers humiliation, clearly alludes to a feature of class society in which a woman's body and sex in general are turned into a form of currency.

However, as the plot progresses, this relationship changes. Neville's assumption that women are helpless fodder for his sexual ego is dealt a severe blow by Sarah Thalmann's second contract, in which he is used.

The denial of the right of inheritance to women is also taken up. Mr Herbert has only a daughter, Sarah, and refuses her the estate on his death. Sarah is thus locked into a race to have a male child, to win the family wealth. Her husband is 'as impotent by day, as you are by night' and so she schemes with her mother. Both show a powerful wit, employing the most withering insults for their adversaries. It is a joy to watch them hatch plot after plot, without anyone understanding their motives.

The clearest satire in this film is an assault on realist art, as practised to lunatic proportions by the arrogant, headstrong draughtsman. Neville wants his art to be perfect copying of the landscape, as he dictates it. His role is 'never to distort or dissemble'. All humans, unless completely still, are banned from the area and he even chases sheep out of the field to paint a view.

The film's most important principle is that nothing is what it seems. There is no straightforward subject, or even observation. It is all a question of interpretation and of looking below the surface. This is alluded to, in comic fashion, as the gardener's apprentice has an obsession for pretending to be statues.

The musical score by Michael Nyman is worth noting, as it is unlike soundtracks in most films. Based on work by the English composer, Henry Purcell, who died in 1695 in odd circumstances, Nyman provides a motor of classical music, which is as much a feature of this film as Greenaway's direction.

By comparison with Greenaway's other films, The Draughtsman's Contract seems a bit tame. His later films become starker, more vicious in content and more awesome.

However, it is a must for anyone who wants to see a thought provoking and polemical film. As you watch Neville's paintings burning at the end, remember what is being said. All the certainties, prejudices and perfections of the old order are being cast onto the bonfire. It happened in the 1600s, and it will happen again. A look below the surface will reveal just that.
Chris Chilvers


Sign of life

Peripheral Violence
by Robert Lindsay Wilson

Childhood should be a time when we learn through enjoyment about the world in which we live. Peripheral Violence shows us that under capitalism childhood clearly is nothing of the sort.

The play takes us into the lives of three children, two brothers and a girlfriend, brought up on a working class estate in Glasgow. Set in the present and culminating in a murder committed by the three children, the play has obvious parallels with the murder of Jamie Bulger. The production was delayed until after the Bulger court case.

Unlike the news coverage of that case, this play concentrates on the deprivation and poverty of the children's surroundings. The children are painfully aware of their working class status.

The squalor and violence that the children face every day--the two boys sharing a urine soaked bed, the beatings from their Dad, the girl, Natasha, suffering sexual abuse--result in their humanity being destroyed. This reaches a terrible climax during the murder scene when the children take it in turns to shoot a man. They treat it as a game and have no sense that what they are doing is murder.

With an eye to the argument that child crime is the product of poor parenting, this play shows that for working class people there's not much chance of being a 'good' parent anyway. The conditions in which people are forced to live, not parental responsibility, are the real issue.

During the course of the play the boys' Dad gets arrested outside the club where he drinks. Later, after describing to Andy, his son, some of the horrors of his own childhood, Andy asks him why the police arrested him. His response, in the final moments of the play, is inspiring.

'Andy: Why did they take you Da?
Dad: Because I gave them a sign.
Andy: What sign?
Dad: I gave them the sign of life. Opposition, that's our sign of life.'

Because of its subject matter, Peripheral Violence is necessarily a pretty grim play, but there are touching and even funny moments. Most moving perhaps is the fact that these kids are not different in any way, but share the same hopes and dreams as any other children. The tragedy is that their dreams are shattered and by the end of the play four lives have been crushed by the weight of the class system.
Sarah Finigan
Peripheral Violence plays at the Cockpit Theatre, London NW1, until 11 June

Middle class crisis

Falling over England
by Julian Mitchell

Julian Mitchell is the author of Another Country, which appeared in the mid-1980s and explored the hidden sexualities and sham morality of the English upper middle class. It was a tense affair, lifting the curtain on all the double standards and hypocrisy of our betters as they tell us one thing and do another.

Falling over England has the same slick dialogue and believable characters. The performances are good. The set is okay. Er ... that's it. The play has nothing new to say and carries the smell of an author who once was genuinely sickened by the nature of his class but who is now reconciled to accepting that it's the best on offer.

The action revolves around two generations of the same family with the Suez crisis of 1956 in the background. The aborted British invasion of Egypt that year was final confirmation that Britannia no longer ruled the waves. This play tries to assess how the English middle classes have coped with that fact. There are passing references to 'Hungary in 56' and 'back in 68', in a pretty poor attempt to suggest that the younger members of the family once considered something more than their own careers.

We are invited to pity 'Dad' who calls anyone with a dark skin 'wog' and admits to framing a young Egyptian for a murder Dad's friend committed. We are asked to sympathise with the daughter who has to leave the family house in the country to go to London twice a week to write her column in the Independent poor thing, and with the grandson who has the awful dilemma of choosing to go up to Oxford or off travelling around Europe.

The play tries to suggest the decaying nature of the English upper middle class family and its values as it limps towards the millennium. But it comes nowhere near the decrepit, corrupt and obscene condition of that class and its ideals as they squirm around in the mud of recession, lining their own pockets at our expense.
Lee Humber
Falling over England plays at the Greenwich Theatre, London SE8

Who's looking at the family? A photographic exhibition does exactly that at the Barbican art gallery, London until September
Who's looking at the family? A photographic exhibition does exactly that at the Barbican art gallery, London until September


Songs from the terraces

Playing Away
Opera North

This new opera was met with hostility, even boos and shouts of 'Rubbish!' at the preview in Leeds last month.

It is the story of footballer Terry Bond and his pop star wife L A Lola. Terry's team are playing in the European Cup Final. It should be the highlight of his career, but he is pursued by the sinister figure of The Great Referee, and his career and marriage come crashing down around him.

Benedict Mason and Howard Brenton have bravely chosen a contemporary setting for their opera. They use it to good effect as they examine the exploitation which runs through football, pop and, by analogy, opera as well. 'Just get the job done, just get the song sung,' Lola tells Terry.

No punches are pulled as Mason's accessible music complements Brenton's realistic words. Songs from the terraces and the recording studio mingle to show us a world where Lola can sing, 'Show us your tits; that's love in a democracy,' but one where Terry literally and beautifully dances with the ball.

'Why are English fans so primitive?' asks the Japanese owner of Terry's team. 'It's a primitive world, old son,' responds the manager. There is much beauty in football, pop and opera, but in a world where capitalism makes a commodity out of beauty, there must also be greed, corruption and exploitation.

Playing Away may or may not turn out to be an enduring opera; but at the very least Mason and Brenton deserve credit for refusing to play safe. As director Paul Daniel has commented, 'Politics has long been the domain of sport but ... perhaps it's the turn of opera again.'

This is a marvellous opera, deserving a wider audience than it is likely to get. Football fans and socialists alike will find it challenging and worthy of tears and laughter.
Frank Ormston
Playing Away will be touring to Leeds, Hull, Nottingham and Manchester during June

Operatic justice

Cosi Fan Tutte
English National Opera

Cosi Fan Tutte (all women behave that way) is Mozart's exploration of the tangled area of love, desire and conflict between the sexes. It was first performed in 1790, under the reactionary regime of the Austro-Hungarian emperor Joseph II.

A woman-hating old cynic, Don Alfonso, tells his friends that women are not to be trusted, including the two sisters to whom they are engaged. He offers a wager and they accept his challenge.

The women are led to believe that the men have been called away on military service. It is, however, a test of the women's fidelity since the men reappear in disguise and proceed to woo the sisters. The women finally succumb to their advances, deciding, however, to swap fiancées. The men are distraught but Don Alfonso urges them to forgive. Plans are made for a double wedding.

The opera was deemed so outrageous that it was banned from the Viennese stage for 25 years. The idea of women making sexual choices was clearly offensive to the Austrian upper classes. And traditional productions have emphasised the theme of women's fickleness. More recent ones, influenced by contemporary sexual politics, have been more adventurous. This one goes further than any in drawing out the implications of the women's deviation from the straight and narrow.

Instead of the men reasserting their control over their wayward fiancées by locking them into marriage, the sisters turn the tables on them by substituting two servant women. They are seen waving goodbye as the wedding ceremony takes place. Though unfaithful to the letter of the original text by Lorenzo Da Ponte, it is faithful to the spirit of the opera.

Mozart represented the peak of 18th century classical music, created at a time of decay of the old order, when the rising capitalist class was increasingly challenging the economic strength of the feudal nobility and the power of the absolute monarchy. Mozart identified himself with the radicals who sought to create a new society based on reason and individual liberty. Cosi Fan Tutte shows Mozart at the height of his creative powers and contains some of his most poignantly lyrical arias, expressive of the rise of individual love and desire in the modern world.

First performed six months after the opening shot of the French Revolution, the storming of the Bastille, it also expresses the search for human liberation at the heart of modern revolutions.
Sabby Sagall
Plays at the London Coliseum in June and July


Ralph Miliband

I only met Ralph Miliband personally towards the end of his life. However, his books and articles played an important role in the political development of my generation of socialists. Ralph Miliband was a very good clear writer--a real virtue in a period when the worst academicism often afflicted socialist theorising.

His most important book was surely his first, Parliamentary Socialism (1961). Deservedly, it has been reprinted several times.

The book laid bare the fawning towards British capitalist institutions that has marked the Labour Party from its beginning. Labour, after 90 years in parliament, has never made Britain significantly more democratic. It can't even claim it gave votes to women under 30. Labour, Miliband showed, maintained an unremitting subservience to crown, imperialism and property.

Periodically a left developed in the party, but it was regularly sucked into the same habits, or utterly marginalised.

His argument and documentation were brilliant. His book has sustained and enlightened us all for three decades. But it posed an obvious question: what's the alternative? To that, regrettably, the author's answers were far less adequate.

In 1964, with John Saville, Ralph Miliband launched the annual Socialist Register. In it, he called for the formation of a new socialist party. But on what principles? Here the weakness of his position came to the fore.

In 1969, he published The State in Capitalist Society. Here he set out to show that the state in the advanced countries was inherently capitalist. But the arguments belonged more to 'elite theory' than to Marxism, with two major weaknesses. The whole force of his case rested on the personal connections between state personnel and the propertied, and their shared prejudices and culture. The difficulty here is that whole periods of capitalist history don't fit: for example Meiji Japan, Nazi Germany, the Stalinist states.

Sadly, the book lacked any sense of the class struggle. It presented a relentless picture of ruling class domination. The waves of revolt from below that have shaped and transformed capitalist states do not appear. Even in his account of education, the same problem appeared. To his credit, Ralph Miliband in 1968 spoke strongly in defence of the students' struggle at the London School of Economics, yet his 1969 book offered an account of higher education from which classroom struggle is completely absent.

Miliband's hatred of inequality and oppression was genuine and powerful. But what his writings never provide is a concrete sense of the potential power and creativity of working people in struggle. In 30 years of turbulent world history, Socialist Register managed not to celebrate a single revolutionary struggle in the advanced world. It missed out on 1968, on Portugal, Iran, Poland.

As a result, Miliband's suggestions for new socialist parties never seemed grounded in any living reality. John Saville's obituary in The Guardian (23 May) mentions that, unlike others of his generation, Ralph Miliband never joined the Communist Party. Perhaps he was the worse for that. For all its terrible record, the CP might have given him some sense of the possibilities and difficulties of socialist organisation, and of the roots of socialism in everyday struggle.

His best memorial remains Parliamentary Socialism. Any thinking member of the Labour Party who reads it will shudder, or blush. The beast anatomised there has not changed since 1961, only become more like Miliband's devastating portrait.
Colin Barker

Return to Contents page: Return to Socialist Review Index Home page