Issue 178 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published September 1994 Copyright © Socialist Review



No chance to walk away

Broken glass
by Arthur Miller

Miller: taking sides
Miller: taking sides

This is a brilliant play, a bitter attack on everything you've ever read that says the fascists aren't really a threat.

It centres around a Jewish family and their doctor in New York in 1938, the year of the Kristallnacht, which marked the first night of the Nazi reign of terror against the Jews. Shocked by news of the pogroms filtering across to America, Sylvia Gellburg, long suffering wife of businessman Phillip, loses the use of her legs.

This personal tragedy sets off a train of events which leads all the play's characters--including the socialist Dr Hyman brought in to treat Sylvia--to question what they held to be true about themselves and society generally.

The author shows how the compromises and unwritten agreements which day to day hold together personal relationships are tested in times of great social and political upheaval.

He looks at the oppression of Jews, at how, faced with anti-Semitism, many Jews in America as elsewhere were forced to subjugate themselves even to the point of denying their own Jewishness. Breadwinner Phillip is the main vehicle for this. Torn apart by his wife's illness he goes through a terrible reappraisal of his own character.

But the core of the play is the rise of fascism and the consequences of ignoring it. All of the characters in the play--except for the paralysed Sylvia--underestimate the threat of the Nazis. Dr Hyman's wife asks how can Sylvia be hurt by something happening thousands of miles away? Even the socialist doctor feels the Nazis can't last and then has to admit after one particularly passionate outburst from Sylvia that he's out of his depth. Only Sylvia truly senses the danger.

Since writing the play, Miller has discovered that there was in fact an unusual amount of physical paralysis among Jews in America during this period, while recent evidence shows a high incidence of hysterical blindness among Cambodian women following the horrors of the era of the Khmer Rouge.

But Sylvia's physical paralysis is only a metaphor for the political paralysis of the other characters in the play--a cross section of the middle class--and, by implication, the political paralysis of the British and American governments. Sylvia poses the question, 'What happens when you can't walk away?' Miller answers very clearly that you have to stand and fight or lose all.

The ways that social and political events influence personalities is brilliantly brought home by Miller. However, perhaps even more importantly the play hints at how human beings can start to change themselves, affect others around them and consequently start to influence political events. Appalled by what she reads and hears, Sylvia loses use of her legs but not her brain or her powers of speech. Her struggle to impress the danger of fascism on others deeply disturbs all of them, and forces them to reassess.

With the battle to defeat fascism still to be won, this play by one of the 20th century's leading playwrights tells us to stand up and be counted.
Lee Humber

Broken Glass is at the National Theatre, London

Crocodile tears

The Street of Crocodiles
by Theatre de Complicite

The Street of Crocodiles is based on the life and work of the Jewish writer Bruno Schultz. Schultz was born in the Polish town of Drohobycz and murdered there by the Nazis 50 years later in 1942.

During the 1930s Schultz became one of Poland's foremost writers. A number of his short stories have been woven together with his life in this play.

The central theme of his writing, expressed stunningly in the play, is that things are not as they seem, do not remain static and are constantly being transformed.

Set to work by the SS to catalogue books due for destruction, Schultz comes across a book whose smell summons memories of his family and life as a school teacher. Real events and characters are fused with nightmarish images and characters. Objects and people become transformed.

The play succeeds in using inventive techniques to bring the complex psychological narrative of Schultz's work to the stage. This does, however, mean you have to work hard to decipher the action as it proceeds in Schultz's mind. The reality of Nazi occupation frames the play at the beginning and at the end with Schultz's murder.

It is this that gives Schultz's memories an added edge. The world he depicts of life in a small Polish town changing under the impact of industrialisation is brutally cut short along with the life of an author whose writing explored the mind and imagination.

See the play and if you can, have a look at the programme beforehand.
Kevin Ovenden

The Street of Crocodiles is at the Young Vic and goes to Brighton in October

Two out of three

We review three new plays currently showing at the Edinburgh Festival

Secret love
Secret love

A kidnapped media tycoon, a pack of tabloid newshounds, a gun-toting priest and John Major--Abducting Diana is about par for the course for Dario Fo, author of the classic political farces, Accidental Death of an Anarchist and Can't Pay, Won't Pay.

First performed in Italy in 1987, but only receiving its British premiere at this year's Edinburgh Fringe, this is yet another prophetic Fo satire. Abducting Diana is one in the eye for new Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi in particular, and for the ruling class in general.

A tale of bourgeois corruption, sleaze and backstabbing, the play is as adaptable to the current Tory crisis in Britain as Can't Pay, Won't Pay proved to be to the campaign against the poll tax. It is therefore a great disappointment that this production never really comes off. Farce is a very exact art, and the necessary pace, timing and punch are lacking--and the occasional silly running around routine never really compensates. Susan Penhaligon is brilliant as the powerful right wing media mogul (Julie Burchill would be quite jealous) and as her convincing double, but she is largely let down by the supporting cast.

Twilight Shift by Jackie Kay, on the other hand, is absolutely unmissable. Although Scottish touring company 7:84--their name comes from the calculation made in the 1960s that 7 percent of Britain's population owned 84 percent of the wealth--are renowned for dealing with contemporary political issues, this is the first time they've worked with primarily gay material.

It's the story of gay love in a small, tight-knit Scottish mining community. Alexander, a miner, is having a love affair with Joe, the local barber and himself a miner's son, but Alexander is married with a son and Joe's grandmother is holding a secret which could change all their lives.

The play is a wonderful sensitive examination of the guilt, fear and secrecy which gay love so often carries within working class communities. This is particularly acute in a relatively isolated mining town which, in addition to having experienced a pit disaster and the Great Strike of 1984-85, has to deal with the contradictions thrown up by the macho culture of the men and the physical closeness and camaraderie of the all male working environment.

There are no heroes and no villains here. There is a deep understanding of how homophobia is detrimental not only to gay people but to the whole of society, and of the furtiveness, self denial and rejection which so often damages so many people.

Jackie Kay paints on a wide canvas, and so Twilight Shift breaks down the theatrical stereotypes of both gay men and miners.

In this play we have a wonderful rarity--an intense, genuine, moving portrayal of what it is to be working class and gay in our society.

Bitch! Dyke! Faghag! Whore! is another must see. Don't be put off by the title, this show is not an exercise in professional political correctness. Subtitled the 'Penny Arcade Sex and Censorship Show' this is accessible theatre at its best. The show was written in response to the censorship ushered in by right wing Senator Jesse Helms in the US a few years ago and its continued international success is a tribute to its effectiveness.

Essentially it is a one woman show. Susana Ventura, or Penny Arcade, is wonderful in the myriad of roles.

The accessibility of the show stems from Penny Arcade's outlook, which she terms her 'working class sensibility'. She says, 'the same thing that makes people violent and racist makes them homophobic. This horrible fear that comes from the horrible class system that we live in.'

Penny Arcade want us to 'look at where the strings go up from the marionette' and in seeing the oppressive hand of capitalism she has created a truly liberated and uplifting piece of theatre.
Mark Brown

Abducting Diana is at the Pleasance, Edinburgh, until September 3. Twilight Shift and Bitch! Dyke! Faghag! Whore! are both at the Assembly Rooms, Edinburgh, until September 3. Watch out for them elsewhere in the coming months


Killer with a badge

Wyatt Earp
Dir: Lawrence Kasdan

'Some people say it never happened that way'. So comments Wyatt Earp, played by Kevin Costner, looking back on one of the many legends about him in the final scene of Lawrence Kasdan's new three hour epic on the life of America's most famous deputy Marshal. It is an apt comment on the film.

Wyatt Earp is a household name in the US, and the subject of huge popular myth. Encouraged by previous Hollywood productions, including the recent release Tombstone, many perceive Earp as a heroic lawman in lawless times, whose vicious methods of maintaining law and order are necessary.

However, the real historical figure is rather different. The myths of the Wild West, romanticised so much by Hollywood productions and US presidents, seek to hide the brutal and violent atmosphere in which US capitalism rose and expanded in the late 19th century. The butchering of the indigenous population, the 'Red Indians', was only one face. Ruthless competition between rival capitalists and assorted fortune hunters seeking to exploit the massive natural resources of the 'new frontier' often resulted in shootouts, robbery and murder on a grand scale.

It was in this world that Earp and his family grew up. The main redeeming feature of Kasdan's film is his portrayal of Earp's development from a youth, physically sick at the sight of a gunfight, into a US Marshal. His life experiences, such as the death of his wife from typhoid, and his environment transform a harmless youth into a murderer.

When Earp supposedly fought for law and order in Dodge City and Tombstone, he was still under sentence of death in Arkansas. He, his brothers and Doc Holliday were held and indicted for murder after the shootout at the OK Corral. The film shows all these facts, along with his nasty and contemptuous attitude towards the women in his family. It also shows his belief that 'nothing counts as much as blood', which eventually pushes the Earp brothers, under Wyatt's stubborn leadership, into a confrontation in which one is killed.

Kasdan, talking about his motive in the film, says that Earp typifies 'a very American journey', which 'started out with optimistic, innocent ideas. But in the settlement of America, there was always a high level of violence and brutality'. Earp, as a killer with a badge, represents the bloody expansion of US capitalism and not by accident.

The question of law and order, the main issue of Wyatt Earp's life and consequently of this film, is where Kasdan's interpretation rots on the bone. The treatment of Earp's attitude to the law reveals a nasty right wing bias.

Earp was a 'hard ass' as Marshal. He never tolerated a questioning of his methods. During the first of his two terms as a Marshal in Dodge City, his favourite means of stopping the carrying of guns in the city was to come up behind the offenders and pistol whip them with his gun, letting them go the next day if they agreed to comply. He was eventually dismissed by popular anger.

The gunfight at the OK Corral has nothing to do with the law but is a personal feud between two gangs, one of which (the Earps) have badges. Their indictment for murder follows a large demonstration at the funeral of their victims.

In all this, the film portrays him to be right. However, there are two major problems with this analysis.

The first is why the law exists at all in the anarchy of the gold rushes and scrambling for land and cattle in the West. It was never designed to defend the population against wild outlaws. Many gangs were allowed to roam free if they worked for the right capitalist in the area. The law provided rules for the competition and exploitation taking place.

Secondly, crime is the product of the inevitable mass poverty brought by capitalism. Huge expectations of finding wealth were dashed for the vast majority, whilst those with wealth defended it with arms. Disillusionment and desperation led many, as it does today, towards crime.

This film is, undoubtedly, an epic production. It is, however, epic in form but not in content. A dubious historical account of the 'Wild West' is accompanied by political bankruptcy.
Chris Chilvers

A slice of the cake

Highway Patrolman
Dir: Alex Cox

Kings of the road
Kings of the road

When Pedro Rejos leaves police college he learns that motorists are always wrong and he is always right, giving him a sense of superiority over other people. He begins to patrol the highways of Mexico full of ideals and morals--such as refusing to take bribes and doing his duty.

But he finds it almost impossible to maintain these high moral standardse--specially when he sees his friends driving around in new fast cars and dealing in videos.

His new responsibilities as a husband with a wife to provide for are portrayed in the film as the main reason that Pedro eventually accepts bribes. But this hides the fact that if an individual is part of an institution that can only exist and maintain itself through corruption then the individuals themselves will become at least as corrupt.

When a colleague is killed by drug smugglers Pedro seeks revenge. He gets his automatic pistol ready and attempts to smash the drug ring single handedly--and with unbelievable ease. But at the same time he takes his own slice of the cake.

When he is suspended for killing the drug smugglers he quits and joins young hopefuls on the highway patrols. He uses his drug money to rescue a local prostitute and helps her quit her drug habit.

Pedro seems to come out with flying colours, and a sense that he has beaten the system. At times during the film you will find yourself in sympathy with him, even growing to like him, as he is transformed from rookie cadet to a gritty veteran, cynical and bruised.

I left the cinema thinking it was a good film with a lot of action, excellent photography and a good soundtrack. But the good policeman in a rotten system story has been done many times before. I ended up thinking more about the reasons why people end up smuggling drugs and turning to prostitution than the plight of a highway patrolman.
John Barrie


End of an ideal


The highly hyped and over priced event last month desperately tried to recreate the spirit of the original Woodstock, which took place 25 years ago in August 1969.

Then, the most famous of all music festivals drew up to half a million people, making it the third largest city in the state of New York at the time. For three days and nights hundreds of thousands of young people listened to the musical greats of the era--Jimi Hendrix, Sly and the Family Stone, the Who.

Woodstock was only one of around 40 music festivals organised that year. The decade had seen an explosion of social unrest and political organisation as civil rights protesters, anti war campaigners and student activists rocked the US establishment.

In the summer of 1968 the revolutionary Black Panther party was selling over 100,000 copies of its newspaper, while opinion polls showed it had the great respect of over a quarter of the black population in the US, and over 43 percent of blacks under 21. Hundreds of thousands had marched in demonstrations against the war.

So where does Woodstock fit into all this? In a very important sense it was a continuation of protest. It was an overtly anti Vietnam War festival. The peace and love message carried by musicians and audience alike could be a political starting point from which to attack the US state.

Hundreds of thousands of young people gathered together with no police or state troopers and there was no violence, no one was attacked or murdered. People walked around naked and no one was raped; drugs were openly used in great quantity but nobody died of an overdose. It was a gesture of challenge to the rules of morality which govern society.

Compared to Woodstock '94 it was in a different league. Anyone who went in 1969 identified in some way with the dissatisfaction abroad then.

But in another very important sense Woodstock, and the other music festivals organised that year, were signs of the protest movements losing their way, a retreat into counter-culturalism. For many of its backers, Woodstock showed that you didn't have to challenge the system, you could simply 'drop out' of it and create your own. You didn't need political ideas here. When Abbie Hoffman, a leader of the Yippies who argued for revolution, tried to give a speech he was shoved off stage to--according to Rolling Stone--the cheers of the crowd.

The idea that you could create your own environment without challenging the system was severely jolted within months of Woodstock. The Altamont rock festival ended in violence and the death of an 18 year old black man, stabbed to death by security guards. Less than a year later, on 4 May 1970, a student protest at Kent State University ended when National Guards shot and killed four unarmed students and injured nine others.

Woodstock was a great gathering of young people in protest, a token of their wish to live in a different sort of world. But although they are important, it takes more than tokens to create that world.
Lee Humber

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