Issue 189 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published September 1995 Copyright © Socialist Review
by D M W Greer
When Bill Clinton reneged on his promise to lift the ban on gays in the US military two years ago there was an enormous wave of anger. The same bigotry from the military top brass in this country has ensured that the ban on gays in the British armed forces remains firmly in place. A play which sets out to challenge such homophobia is therefore to be welcomed.
Burning Blue centres on the lives of four men aboard a fictional American aircraft carrier, the Harry S Truman. All four are friends and top pilots who share an ambition to get on to the space programme. Daniel and Will are especially close having both bailed out together. Daniel goes on to sit Will's sight tests to get him through the Nasa exams.
However, it is between Daniel and Matt that a sexual relationship develops. While everyone else is on shore leave painting the town red, they end up in a gay club dancing the night away. The play then takes us through the following weeks during which the two first deny and then come to terms with the feelings they have for each other.
Daniel and Matt have, however, been spotted dancing in the club and their heinous behaviour leads to a full scale investigation by naval intelligence. The play cuts between the investigation and the growing relationship between the two pilots. Simultaneously there is a growing feeling of sexual liberation and a gathering witch hunt.
Tony Armatrading and Tim Woodward, who play special agents Jones and Cokely, do a marvellous job recreating the McCarthyite hysteria reported by so many gays who've been drummed out of the forces. Cokely plays the hard cop but his prurient excesses begin to make even Jones feel sick. Matt is killed in a flying accident and that's when Daniel's interrogation really begins.
Cokely flies from one side of the country to the other, desperate to find evidence to entrap Daniel. His interview with Trumbo, one of the four pilots, is one of the funniest scenes in the play. Up to this point the rampantly heterosexual Trumbo has merely been a foil for the play's gay theme. He proceeds to string Cokely along, refusing to provide him with evidence and embarrassing him with his frankness. When asked if he has ever had sex with men, children, or small animals, he asks for a definition of small.
Trumbo's openness about sexuality and personal feelings is one of the most surprising and effective aspects of the drama.
The inventive scene changes and rapid jumps backwards and forwards in time succeed in keeping most of the story taut and pacy, although the play drags towards the end as a few too many themes are introduced. The breakdown and re-establishment of Daniel's friendship with Will, for instance, is really only sketched out. That said, the play is very well acted, funny and moving, without being overly sentimental.
I do have one gripe. The campaign for gay rights in the military has refused to criticise the role of the army and US and British imperialism around the world.
This is a weakness but the programme for Burning Blue goes further. It tells you little about the play and a lot about the killing power of an aircraft carrier and the FA-18 Hornet fighter. Such glorification of militarism does nothing to advance the cause of gay rights.
Plays at Theatre Royal, Hayrnarket London
by Ariel Dorfman
Chilean writer Ariel Dorfman's latest play, Reader, receiving its world premiere at this year's Edinburgh Fringe, opened under the burden of high expectations--inevitable after the huge international success of his psychological thriller Death and the Maiden. An ingenious, involved and often entertaining piece of theatre, Reader nonetheless falters not so much under pressure of audience anticipation as under the weight of its own convoluted form.
Dedicated censor Daniel Lucas, known as 'The Pope' for the infallibility of the texts he finally turns out, comes face to face with his own past crimes and the nature of his profession when he receives an unfinished novel which reflects his life absolutely.
Lucas and the key characters in his life increasingly alternate between themselves and the characters in the developing novel until life and fiction become virtually indistinguishable. Although an effective way of bringing out the truth about Lucas's past, and a clever irony, as the novel controls and finally rewrites the censor's life, Dorfman's brush strokes are simply too broad.
The power of Death and the Maiden lies in the very way in which Dorfman is able to deal with universal issues of revenge and justice through the specific circumstances of a newly 'democratised' South American state. With the sheer generality of Reader's futuristic society that recognition and believability is lost.
Although intentionally facile, Dorfman's new world of enforced happiness and received moral certainty lacks the immediately identifiable elements so crucial to the futures of Orwell's 1984 and Huxley's Brave New World. Ultimately, Dorfman's attempt to speak to a general human experience is so fictional that it fails to really engage with what is truly insidious and sinister about modern censorship and control of ideas.
Reader, a well intentioned, potentially powerful play, runs itself into the ground as it tries to work through the central political confusion of its author. Dorfman, despite being an exile from Peron's anti-Semitism in Argentina in the 1940s, from McCarthy's anti-Communist witch hunt in the 1950s and, finally, from Pinochet's CIA backed coup in Chile in 1973, comes to the conclusion that the roots of repression and censorship lie not in the state power of class society but in a deeper human failing.
Having said, 'Politics in my work is not merely a matter of the state doing terrible things to people, it's people doing terrible things. You have to start from the point of view that it's characters--human beings--who have these motivations', Ariel Dorfman has created in Reader a play which is so sucked into the issue of humanity's supposed malevolence that its political themes are obscured.
Look out for Reader around the country later in the year
Sanitation Workers Assemble--28 March 1968.
This picture forms part of the 'Appeal To This Age' exhibition which documents the black civil rights movement in the US. The photographs range from the Montgomery bus boycott in 1955 to the ghetto uprisings in 1968. The images of white supremacism and the heroic struggle against it have lost none of their power to shock and inspire. As the programme puts it, the 'revelation of the oppression at the heart of the American capitalist system seriously damaged the US's image abroad at a time during the Cold War when it was determined to present itself as the protector of liberty and justice.'
Showing at the Photographers' Gallery, London, 25 August-14 October
The Machine Wreckers
by Ernst Toiler in a version by Ashley Dukes
The prospect of this play was appealing. From a drama by socialist Ernst Toiler, it is about the battle of the Luddites, a group of workers in the last century, who were being denied their livelihoods as craftsmen by the use of machines in the new factories. It promised to debunk the history lessons in school where you were taught that the Luddites were crazed thugs, who were too stupid to see the benefits technology was to bring us all.
The play did show that it was poverty and fear for their futures that drove the workers to smash the machines and brought the bosses' wrath down on them. The death penalty was threatened for such sabotage to their profits. The bosses' priority was not the lives of children, men and women worked to ill health and death to earn enough to live. We are shown a timeless critique of the rotten system we live in, as the lords in parliament talk of 'economic realities' of jobs lost due to the machines. Lord Castlereagh celebrates the benefits of the starvation and death of workers because the world is overpopulated and the common herd need to be kept in check. These speeches are made while the lords stuff themselves with raspberries, cream and fine wine, while workers are seen fighting over a crust of bread.
Yet the play is a disappointment because the context is more Germany 1921, as Toiler writes the play, than the 1815 Luddite riots, and its conclusion is one of despair. On stage the striking workers are ready to fight and there is a battle for leadership between the hero, the outsider utopian socialist Jimmy Cobbett whose way is to negotiate with the boss for better conditions, and the strikers' head man, John Wibley, a machine wrecker, whose narrow ambition leads him to an unholy pact with the boss to destroy the socialist's influence. The church provides no guidance and the strikers must choose. Whose is the best way forward?
What we are shown is a rabble of bloodthirsty, ignorant workers who cannot see the enlightened socialist road, and in defeat Wibley persuades them to scapegoat and kill Cobbett. When their foolishness is exposed, Cobbett becomes a Christ like martyr. The humbled workers can but surrender to the bosses.
We are left to conclude that if workers fight they lose and that socialists are a breed apart; smart arses who, if lucky, stay around long enough to tell stupid workers, 'I told you I was right.'
The play's worth is really in its depiction of the naked greed of the bosses, but overall the pace is slow and it is frustrating as the chance is not taken to give us an insight into our history, when workers fought back with the odds stacked against them. The play moves to Nottingham after London, but don't go if you're looking for inspiration.
Plays at the Cottesloe, National Theatre, London