Issue 191 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published November 1995 Copyright Socialist Review

REVIEWS

THEATRE

The other empire

A Patriot for Me
by John Osborne

The drag ball: mirror image of the court

The decaying Austro-Hungarian empire in the years just before the First World War is the setting for John Osborne's play about sex, snobbery, racism and the army. At the heart of the play is the rise of a junior officer, one Alfred Redl, who is an outsider in more ways than one.
He rises to the top through impressing his superiors with his knowledge of languages and his dedication to army life. We can do with all the Redls we can get,' says the general at one point. He redeems the stupidity of the military system--a 'crown-imperial of non-intellect', as one perceptive cynic puts it--by his efficiency and devotion to duty. All in all, he is a model soldier, the backbone of his country, a patriot and arch-spycatcher.
Yet he has a weak point. Outwardly he conforms to the sexual stereotype. Like his brother officers he sleeps with whores, catches syphilis--even gets himself a countess as a mistress. But it is a sham. Though he cannot admit it to himself, until the play is a third of the way through, his real love is the love that dare not speak its name. Why didn't I do this before, he declares rapturously, as he lies in bed with his first male partner--only to be betrayed by his lover and viciously beaten up by his lover's fellow soldiers the very next instant.
Betrayed, Redl becomes the betrayer. Outwardly, he is even more loyal--one telling sign of this is the aristocratic monocle he sports. But secretly, he is in the pay of the Russian secret service, who have blackmailed him. With the wealth that comes from his now being a double agent he can move at ease in the highest circles of imperial society, behaving in exactly the same cynical way as those he is both serving and betraying. And inwardly his cynicism expresses itself in his exploitative relationship to his young lovers.
Redl the outsider is now an insider, corrupted by the corrupt society he belongs to. Indeed, the hypocrisy of the society is such that its members practise the same sexual 'vices' that they condemn as effeminate. The great defining moment is the drag ball scene--stunningly acted in this production--in which we recognise in the drag queens those who earlier appeared as pillars of respectable society. Redl is not the only sexual outsider. The outsiders are everywhere on the inside, forming an empire of queens to rival the empire of archdukes, princes and generals. But this secret empire is no liberation. The drag ball is the mirror image of the official court ball. It shares the same hierarchy of snobbery and racism. It is just as misogynist and backbiting.
Osborne wrote this play 30 years ago and this is the first major revival since the original production. It does not take much imagination to see how deeply Osborne drew on parallels between the decaying Austro-Hungarian empire on the eve of the Great War and the upperclass establishment of his own day. The fate of Redl is Osborne's equivalent to the 1963 Profumo scandal, which mixed call girls, Tory ministers, homosexuality and Russian spies in about equal measures.
This was still a period of theatre censorship, in which anything the antique office of the Lord Chamberlain objected to in a play had to be removed under pain of non-performance. It was the ugliest sign of the power which the ruling class exerted over deviant opinion, a power which kept most culture and broadcasting bland and deferential.
The hypocrisy was also there in the attitude to male homosexuality. The law was still unreformed despite reports which urged decriminalisation. The threat of being caught or exposed forced men to live lives of the most terrible guilt, misery and secrecy, in which blackmail was an ever present threat. Yet homosexuality was widespread--or so it was believed--in the establishment which upheld the law and in the secret services (that symbol of patriotic defence) who were spying for the Communist enemy.
The play--which the Lord Chamberlain refused to license--had to be put on in dubious legal circumstances at the Royal Court Theatre as a play for members only. What still comes through 30 years later is the sense of rage at the treatment official society meted out to those it considered deviant. The play was a bitter and angry protest at the morality which the upper classes paraded but broke at every turn.
This is what gives the play its power and this new production brings that out extremely welI. Without it some of the questionable elements of Osborne's analysis might be worrying--for example, the implication that while homosexuals may be victims to be sided with, homosexuality itself is an expression of social decadence.
That said, the staging and acting are excellent, and despite the length of the performance (four hours), the action seldom drags. This is a production not to be missed.
Gareth Jenkins
A Patriot for Me plays at the Barbican, London


Mistaken identity

Rat In the Skull
by Ron Hutchinson

Fighting the rat in the skull

A young Irishman describes from his prison cell how the police have kicked his door in, put the boot into him, dragged him across the room and held him in Paddington Green police station under the Prevention of Terrorism Act, taking turns to interrogate him hour after hour until he confesses. The British police are shown to be cynical, after convictions at any cost, and the Belfast Royal Ulster Constabulary to be brutal and bigoted.
A play that begins like that and holds the audience engrossed for two hours without a break should get praise from any socialist reviewer. But I could not help feeling a little uneasy at Rat in the Skull, revived 11 years after its first run at the Royal Court.
The power of the play comes from the juxtaposing of the monologue by the prisoner with another near monologue by the RUC officer trying to interrogate him. Each gives expression to views which go unchallenged among the people that they come from. The prisoner talks about police harassment, oppression and the fight for nationhood. The RUC officer rants on about Catholics trying to outbreed Protestants and living on social security from a state they reject.
My doubts about the play began when I realised both sets of views were treated as equally valid (or invalid), with the Orange view being more forcefully put--perhaps because it was put by a more forceful actor (Tony Doyle, who played the crooked police chief in the television series Between the Lines). The doubts increased when at least some of the audience laughed with the RUC man when he cracked his anti-Catholic jokes, rather than against him. The play's message is that it is the two opposed sets of beliefs that have set Republicans and Loyalists needlessly at each others throats.
Isn't it like 'two fellas in a ditch, clubbing each other till the one dropped dead?', the RUC man asks the prisoner as he makes fun of his beliefs. 'You can't afford letting the rat get in the skull, telling you you're wrong, the fight's not worth the fight.'
But, there's a rat in the RUC man's skull as well. He half knows the Loyalist cause is a doomed one. 'We're going to be sold down the Swanee one of these fine days. Or should I say the Shannon?' And the British regard him as much an Irishman as the prisoner. 'I resent what a quarrel between two brands of Irishman has done to my town, my life,' complains the Scotland Yard officer.
If only, it seems, both Nationalists and Loyalists could shake their brains free of preconceptions, then the whole conflict in Northern Ireland would come to a conclusion. As it is, they are like twin tribes, each hating and needing the other, condemned to fight on for ever--especially if the British ever withdraw.
This can be an appealing message to a British audience, but it's by no means the whole truth about Ireland. Orangeism and Republicanism have never been completely symmetrical, and the British forces have never simply held the ring between the two.
Orange myths were carefully cultivated in the past exclusively among Protestants to provide a cloak for oppression and exploitation--indeed, the Orange Order was founded exactly 200 years ago to mobilise opposition to a Protestant led anti-British movement, the United Irishmen.
By contrast, Republican myths arose out of a confused battle against oppression, and even if that tended to be based mainly on Catholics it also always included some individual Protestants. That is why more is needed in Northern Ireland today than for 'the two communities' simply to tolerate 'the identity' of the other.
The play is well worth seeing, despite these reservations. If it provides a caricatured view of Republicanism, it also explores well many of the contradictions of Loyalism. And it is highly enjoyable.
Chris Harman
Rat in the Skull plays at the Duke of York's Theatre, London


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