Issue 241 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published May 2000 Copyright © Socialist Review
'Goodbye to my Juan
Jesús y Mar'a
You won't have a name
when you ride the big airplane
All they will call you will be
Woody Guthrie wrote his wonderful song 'Deportee' about the Mexican 'wetbacks'--illegal farm workers taken on for the harvest then deported back to Mexico. Today the world is criss-crossed by columns of deportees--crossing the Adriatic in boats, driven across Europe in lorries, hounded across frontiers. The politicians thunder about 'floods' and 'hordes'. They won't discuss what they're fleeing from--the 'collateral damage' caused by Nato bombing, the famines that are anything but natural. They won't talk about racism and persecution. They won't take responsibility for their economic system, which herds groups of workers backwards and forwards across frontiers like cattle to supply their labour needs. Above all, they will not give these people names--they won't tell their stories, so that 'asylum seeker' or 'Roma' or 'illegal immigrant' turns into a real life.
I thought about that recently when I went to the Museum of Immigration on Ellis Island, opposite the Statue of Liberty. In many ways it is a fantastically impressive museum. You enter the huge vaulted hall where a million people arrived in the 20 or so years up to the First World War, at the end of a long journey that probably began in an agricultural village or workers' district in central or eastern Europe. The museum is a monument to the myth of melting-pot America. It does tell the stories of the immigrants who came: the display cases are full of the things they brought from home--the embroidery, the musical instruments, the furniture--and you can listen to them telling their own story. But what those objects tell you is that for the most part these were not the 'wretched poor' but artisans, skilled workers and farmers. They went to the US to build the roads, or work in industry or the clothing sweatshops of New York's Lower East Side. Then, as now, their wages were low, their conditions dangerous.
Along the museum's walls you can read the real history--the constant speeches in Congress complaining that immigrants are 'undermining our culture' or 'exploiting our generosity'. The result was a series of exclusion acts, beginning with the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, the 'gentlemen's agreement' restricting Japanese entry, and on and on through a series of racist decrees and quota restrictions.
In another room a video wall showed that the population of the US came from more than 80 countries, and a relief map of the world exploded the idea of ethnic purity. There was nowhere in the world that was not multicultural. So what 'culture' is it that must be preserved against the immigrants? For a culture--that collection of values, practices, experiences and memories that allows each of us to make sense of the world--is a constantly changing, evolving thing. There is no 'authentic culture' to refer back to--no such thing, for instance, as the 'Englishness' that Blair and Straw have tried to legitimate. Like every government before them they have pandered to racism and xenophobia, and like every government before them they have, at the same time, called on immigrant labour whenever it was needed. The contradiction is always there--it's the political sleight of hand that is always used. To those at home, a promise of exclusive 'citizenship'--guaranteed membership of this national club--symbolised by the exclusion of foreigners. The price of entry is acceptance of the laws of survival in a world market that drives down prices, opens and closes factories as the market dictates, and moves these 'hordes' of labour across continents at will. They say 'these people sponge on the welfare state'. The woman on the front page of the Sun says she's been waiting five years for a house--that's four and a half years before any Roma families arrived in Dover! The reality is that immigrants come to work for rotten wages, and, since they have no rights at all, to be expelled when the demand for labour declines. And the refugees? Conservative and Labour offer the same answer--they are fleeing from 'ethnic violence' or 'poverty'--yet both are the true face of the 'end of history', the internal effects of the reorganisation of the world economy. Today there is no 'out there' for the emigrants to escape from, no 'in here behind the walls' where the immigrant is safe from harm. In the face of the news from Rover, the belief that we are safe in the citadel must be crumbling by the second.
Some years ago, in a debate with Alex Callinicos, Paul Hirst--one of the architects of New Labour's ideology--gave dire warning that 'we' would soon be under siege from 'the ragged armies bearing strange banners'. What he meant was flags that would not be the symbols of nation-states, but the signs of a different collective organisation. As someone once said, there ain't no black in the Union Jack-- but the red flag has no country.
Cradle will rock
Dir: Tim Robbins
A woman sleeping rough gradually wakes. She is lying on a stage behind a giant cinema screen, on which we can see newsreels: Mussolini's invasion of Abyssinia, Hitler's exhibition of what he called 'degenerate art', a fashion show. These are the opening scenes of Tim Robbins's film and--along with a statement which talks about the big US strikes for union recognition of the 1930s--they leave you in no doubt that this is going to be a highly political film.
It is also a very good film. It takes up questions of fascism, war, unemployment and, most importantly, the relationship between art and politics and commitment in a way which holds the audience for more than two hours. The plot is based on fact. The New Deal government of Franklin Roosevelt set up the Federal Theatre Project to get unemployed actors and theatre workers back to work in the years following the Great Depression. The project produced plays in schools and halls across America and, given the growing politicisation at the time, many of these were radical or left wing. New, exciting and politically committed plays were produced.
The Cradle Will Rock was one such play. Written by the left wing composer Marc Blitzstein, it was about the clash between workers and bosses and the fight to build a union. The play was directed by the young Orson Welles and was due to open in New York.
But the project was under attack from the right wing. Its head was questioned by hostile politicians at a Washington committee which was a precursor of the McCarthy period. The project's funding was cut under political pressure and The Cradle Will Rock was closed down on the eve of its opening by US government soldiers. In defiance, the actors moved to another theatre for the opening night, where they were forbidden to play their parts on the stage. In response they played them from their seats, producing a genuinely dramatic performance.
Intertwined into this story are a number of real life characters: Welles himself (Angus Macfadyen), the revolutionary artist Diego Rivera (brilliantly played by Ruben Blades), Nelson Rockefeller (John Cusack), and the press magnate on whom Welles later based his film Citizen Kane, William Randolph Hearst (played by John Carpenter). Rockefeller commissioned Rivera to paint a mural for the newly built Rockefeller Centre, but clashed with the artist when he insisted on including in it a picture of Lenin and a syphilis germ above the heads of the capitalists. Rivera was evicted from the building and his mural chipped from the wall in one of the greatest acts of artistic vandalism ever.
The film provides fascinating insight into the attitudes of the rich and powerful to art. We see Rockefeller with Hearst and the glamorous representative of the fascist Mussolini, Margherita Sarfatti (Susan Sarandon), touring an art gallery as they guzzle champagne. Art is obviously a commodity to them--most directly when Sarfatti sells Italian paintings to the US industrialists and they secretly supply Mussolini with steel. This is despite Rockefeller's farewell to Sarfatti, when he declares that within a few years the two countries will be at war.
One of the best scenes is when the capitalists discuss how to deal with politically committed art, such as that of Rivera, talk about switching their support to artists like Matisse and how they intend to promote abstract notions of art, where colour and form will replace content.
The film's climax is as exciting as its opening. Scenes of demonstrations in support of the Theatre Project are cut with a ball where the rich parade in the costumes of pre-revolutionary France. The strike breaking steel magnate Gray Mathers wears a wig and frock coat, while Hearst is dressed as Cardinal Richelieu dripping in blood red silk. The contrast between the opulence, but essential sterility of the ruling class, and the life and vitality of the actors, artists and workers as they perform the play could not be greater.
The final scenes are ones of solidarity, comradeship, courage and defiance as they stage The Cradle Will Rock. But this is not simply an agitprop film. Robbins has some of his best and most engaging actors playing the various members of the ruling class and this makes their chilling behaviour all the more effective. He also portrays those who testify to the committee against the Communists as sad victims who themselves are destroyed by their betrayal.
He has created a film which gives a terrific sense of the period and of the artistic issues involved, but which never leaves you feeling that you are being lectured. Instead you begin to understand how in any period of change some of the best artists in society begin to identify with those fighting back and in doing so produce some fine art.
by Harold Pinter
Almeida Theatre, London
The Room is Pinter's first play, written in 1957. The second, Celebration, is his latest.
It has all the situations, enigmatic themes and language that have become so familiar to us through his later, better known plays.
The Room is a bedsit--door number seven--in a large house. Nobody knows how many rooms or how many floors the house has, or even where it is. The room is occupied by Mrs Hudd--who hasn't been outside for a long time--and her non-speaking, automaton husband who goes out in his van. They are visited firstly by Mr Kidd who may be the landlord, and who once occupied the room. The next visit, after Mr Hudd has gone out, is from an aggressive young couple who are looking for a room to rent.
They have been sent to room seven by a stranger in the basement who has assured them that the room will soon be vacant.
The landlord persuades Mrs Hudd to take a visit from the stranger. Mrs Hudd is at first frightened by the stranger, who is blind, but he soothes her and tells her that he has been sent by her father to take her to his home. Mr Hudd suddenly returns, becomes violently agitated and beats the stranger to the ground. Mrs Hudd then believes that she too is blind.
This story illustrates the allegorical approach typical of Pinter's work. The mundane drudgery of everyday life emphasised by the bare rhythmic, repetitious dialogue--an essence of being trapped in a limbo like Mrs Hudd's purgatorial state. Visitors from outside bring either profound cruelty or salvation that brings some hope. Journeys are made like pilgrims from or to the outside.
The beauty of his plays is that they are full of ambiguity and paradox, which is a true reflection of the world we inhabit.
It is a shame that this production of The Room, directed by Pinter himself, is treated as an academic exercise. It is set in a very 'Pinteresque' yellow-stained 1950s bedsit with slow 'Pinteresque' performances that take the play to the edge of parody. Maybe this was meant. But it rather comes across as self-reverential.
This isn't true in the second play, also directed by Pinter, Celebration. This was brilliant. Pinter enjoyably puts two fingers up to the English middle classes whom he satirises and derides. It reminded me of Steven Berkoff's Decadence, but more profound.
Set in a posh restaurant. At one table is a foursome; two brothers and their wives who are sisters, celebrating the wedding anniversary of one couple. They are nouveaux riches, having made money as gangsters turned 'consultants', and only come close to any humanity with sickly sentiment. They lack any 'culture' or finesse, but are still welcomed into this world of posh restaurants because they are rich.
At the other table are a couple who represent the old rich. He's a public school banker, she a personal assistant who's married into her boss's wealth. They have just been to the opera, which they can't remember the name of, and have all the cultural trappings of the bourgeoisie, but actually behave as badly as (if not worse than) the other table.
Pinter is having a good go at those who believe culture is an element of an acquired lifestyle, like buying a holiday or a car. He hates these people and shows how vacuous and pretentious they are. The restaurateur recounts how his overpriced restaurant is actually based on a humble pub that his father took him to as a boy. These people are out of touch with any real feelings of love and human emotion, whichever section of the middle class they might be.
In contrast there are the employees of the restaurant. The waitress, a creep, sucks up to the clientele with veiled verbal assaults on foreigners, ignoring the fact that her own parents might have once been 'foreign'.
The waiter tries to interject with fantasies of the world outside where he could make it big. He represents the hope that there might be truth, love and tenderness out there, left alone at the end standing amongst the debris of the debauched, remembering when his grandfather took him to the sea and they looked out from the cliffs through a telescope; 'People don't look through telescopes any more,' and they see a couple in a boat bobbing up and down in the glistening sea.
This is what connects the two plays. Mrs Hudd glimpses a better life beyond her own but it is snuffed out by her husband so that 'I can't see.' And the waiter looks towards the horizon through his telescope to a better life, but is trapped in serving the cultureless imbecilic rich.
The Villain's Opera
by Nick Dear
Royal National Theatre, London
The first time I saw a white stretch limo cruising the streets of Harlesden by night I thought it was some sort of elaborate joke--either that or a bunch of Manchester United fans lost on the way to Wembley. You don't expect to see the local mobster flaunting it quite so openly. And Harlesden is not Harlem. One of the many good things in this new play by Nick Dear is that it manages to capture this feeling of absurdity, that it shows how the 'normal' world and the criminal world intermingle, how the mob craves to be part of Home Counties respectability.
The Villains' Opera is the latest in a long line of plays based more or less loosely on the greatest popular drama of the 18th century, John Gay's Beggar's Opera. Gay's target was the corruption of the government, the court and public life, and he used characters from the underworld to satirise it. Dear sets his action against a backdrop of the Dome and Canary Wharf, and its characters are the petty criminals and the big fish fighting for mastery of their patch in a world where market forces rule and the weakest go to the wall. Needless to say, the coppers are up to their eyes in the filth as well. All are struggling for the 'one big deal' to get them out of hell, in a sordid and disintegrating world. Dreams of 'gangster heaven' are punctuated by reality: 'The wife's got lung cancer/She's slitting her wrists/The National Health Service/Doesn't exist.'
Sharp satire, good songs, fast action--and a strong political message. There is a lot to enjoy in this, not least the scene in a nightclub where the table dancers sing a chorus in praise of credit cards as they tell us how they sell sex on their terms, in a cynical sideswipe at post-feminism.
Because it is a musical--or rather a play with songs--The Villains' Opera inevitably invites comparisons with the most famous of the works derived from Gay--The Threepenny Opera, the first of the great collaborations between Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill. There are echoes of Weill in some of the songs and of Brecht in the themes. This play lacks the savagery of Brecht and Weill (and also the unforgettable music) partly because the roles played by the women are less heartless, and partly because there are perhaps too many targets and issues addressed. Brecht was more direct--'Erst kommt das Fressen dann kommt die Moral' (First grub, then morals)--whereas this play is softer. The beggars 'hold out our hands in the hope that you'll see', rather than clawing each other's eyes out in the quest for a crust.
But that said, The Villains' Opera is a clever, bitter, funny and entertaining show--and closer to reality than anything else you'll see on stage at the moment. The day after I saw this play, the London headlines were all about the two men beaten unconscious by a gang on Hungerford Bridge and thrown into the river to drown. 'You know that brand-new footbridge they're constructing on the Thames?/St Paul's will look delightful, but it's miles from end to end/We won't bother with the patter, all that "stand and deliver"/We'll just bash you with a metal bar and bung you in the river.'
Moments of Madness
by Paul Davies
Touring throughout May and June and then at the BAC, London
The progress of self-government in Wales is the backdrop for Volcano Theatre Company's manic hour-long play. The scene is set around a parody of a conference to examine the state of the arts in the new state. A small-time actor, frustrated that no one understands, an arts executive, who has more interest in seducing the other participants, a disinterested newspaper hack, and a consultant with an identity crisis are introduced to each other by a lonely academic reduced to facilitating such conferences.
The consultant attempts to analyse the nature of public funding from both central and local governments, but as his blackboard scribblings grow more frenetic the conference descends into anarchy.
This bewildering spectacle starts to fluctuate between scenes set within the cargo hold of a ship. Clearly there is crisis here too. Bad food and maggot-infested meat serve to heighten the tensions aboard. It is here that the play makes reference to Eisenstein's film Battleship Potemkin about a mutiny that took place during the Russian Revolution of 1905. These five individuals are placed in a situation where questioning authority overrides the questioning of the state of the arts. Aboard the ship the 'first secretary' disappears.
The play offers a critique of the attempt of self-government in Wales and attacks the nature of Arts Councils, displaying what happens when decisions are left to conferences. Volcano's style is brash physical theatre which enables them to weave the chaos between Wales at the turn of the 21st century and the revolutionary Russia of 1905. The lack of plot and development of characters accentuates the chaos. How can we progress as human beings amid this mania? The closest the play comes to an answer is that any attempts towards progress can only be seen as momentary lapses of reason.